Mental Illness as a Civil Rights Issue

Just as people should not be discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and a host of other issues, people should not be discriminated against based on mental health. Yet, they are, and too often.

Real People

We all know of people living with mental illness. My family, friends and colleagues are not immune to depression, substance abuse addiction, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. The prevalence of mental illness in our society is staggering. The National Institute of Mental Illness estimates that in the past year 26 percent of the population have suffered from a mental illness in one form or another, and about 45 percent have suffered from mental illness at some point in their life. Anyone who reads this article knows someone who has mental health needs. Imagine that such a person, you or someone you know, is treated unfairly because of a mental health issue.

Recently, I met briefly with a group therapy session with Community Counseling of Bristol County. I was invited to meet with the agency because I am the local state representative, who also sits on the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse. As the members of this group spoke with me, they told me about the challenges that they are faced with. Some have had problems with housing, others the police, others finding a job.

The biggest challenge this group all agreed upon was the stigma associated with mental illness. Each person articulately noted that people don't understand what it is like for them to have a mental illness such as depression, PTSD, or schizotypal , to name a few. They talked about the inappropriate ways that their family, friends and the broader society have treated them. In short, this group felt that they were discriminated against based on the presence of a mental illness or mental health condition.

Society's View

Ever since the awful shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, mental illness has been front and center on the mind of anyone thinking about public safety in America. I am worried about what this means for many people successfully living with mental illness.

There has been this seeming demonetization of people with mental illness since Newtown. "Don't give them a gun!" But who are we concerned about? Is it the person who has depression? The adult who was once diagnosed with ADHD? The person successfully living with bipolar disorder? Perhaps it is people living schizophrenia? Does it matter if the person is successfully living with their diagnosis?

First, we do not say "the blacks; the Muslims; the women; or the diabetics." We should not refer to a class of people as "the mentally ill." These are all people. We need to refer to, think of and live with the so-called mentally ill as 'someone who has a mental illness' or just as a 'person'. Some people living with mental illness or other mental health conditions need treatment but more importantly compassion and understanding. Second, to vilify and talk about people with mental illness in a way that implies we should be worried about them for our own sake misses the point that we are not thinking of them for their sake.

Having a mental illness is no different than having asthma or diabetes. If someone treats their condition, they can live and otherwise normal life. If someone does not treat their condition, they will have problems. Yet, there is no shame associated with diabetes or asthma while too often there is with mental illness. This is wrong.

Imagine a world where someone is screaming at the top of their lings:

Being someone who has black skin is who I am. Being someone who has a woman's sex is who I am. Being someone who is gay, who has a different preference, is who I am. Being someone who is a Muslim is who I am. Being someone with diabetes is who I am. Being someone with cancer is who I am. Being someone with depression is who I am. Being someone with Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Schizophrenia, PTSD, etc., is who I am. I have done nothing wrong. Don't look at me differently because of who I am, and don't treat me differently because of who I am.

Women, minorities, people of different sexual orientations and religions and other groups who were once treated unfairly aren't now protected groups because we didn't talk about the un-American ways they were treated. Sticking our heads in the sand, stating that we can't talk about the stigma, unfair treatment and even civil rights violations around people with mental illness or mental health issues won't make the unfair treatment that people are often subjected to go away. There are people in America who are not treated fairly and who need to be protected.


  • Better Access to Mental Health Resources -- Communities, municipalities, and states would be well served by increasing access to mental health services and treatment through expanded insurance coverage.This is something that helps people living with a mental health issue get the treatment they may need and live an otherwise normal life.
  • Police Training -- Police are often the gatekeepers for who spends time in jail and who does not. Appropriate training in recognizing mental illness, understanding what behavior is threatening to the individual and understanding how that may not be a threat to the police is critical. A lack of understanding can lead to resisting arrest or an assault on an officer. This can often be avoided. From another point of view: the amount of money that could be saved by investing in training police to understand, recognize, and respond differently to someone living unsuccessfully with mental illness could save a lot in fewer jail, and subsequently prison incarcerations. Prisons are the new asylums and they need not be.
  • Public Awareness - High school education in mental health, public service advisories, public mental health and mental illness forums, and elected official and concerned citizen leadership are all important aspects to increasing the level of understanding and compassion surrounding mental health and mental illness.
  • Civil Rights Protections - People living with mental illness, successfully or unsuccessfully, should never be discriminated against based on a condition not of their choosing. Civil and criminal laws need to reflect this societal priority. This is not to say that people who are a danger to themselves or others due to a mental illness should be left without assistance (understanding and compassion are essential ingredients to intervention); it means that people living with mental illness, successfully or unsuccessfully, should never be discriminated against based on a condition not of their choosing.

If citizens don't ask for real clearly defined change from their elected officials, from society and from themselves, nothing with change. The way to make mental health and mental illness a protected class is from the bottom-up. If you don't ask, you won't get.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee Mental Health & Substance Abuse. Paul has a Bachelor's in Psychology & Neuroscience from USC, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at