Joyce Brown was forcibly removed from the New York City streets and taken to a mental hospital in October 1987. When she decided to fight for her rights as a human being - her Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom - she didn't know she would draw national attention.
Brown was mentally ill, but she was not incompetent. In the words of her attorney, Robert Levy of the New York Civil Liberities Union, she was "intelligent, aware, witty and smarter than the other attorney."She was among the first mentally ill people to successfully challenge a system that failed to protect the rights of the homeless mentally ill, and she became a symbol of hope to the mentally ill.
Levy, during the keynote speech at the National Mental Health Consumers' Association conference, encouraged mental health consumers to get involved and fight for their own rights as citizens.
"Battle for dignity," he said. "Battle for liberty, for the right to control one's own body, the right to work, the right to attend school. In short, battle for the rights of full citizenship. Civil liberties are not abstract issues, but something that can and should be enforced."
Levy told consumers they should step back from their own lives to get a broader perspective, then they should become revolutionaries "in the most constructive sense of the word." He told them to be patient and prepare for a long fight, because change takes time.
"I have represented a number of people in the mental health movement, and it's critically important to see (consumers) organized."
According to Levy, the mentally ill should have the right to shelter, food and control over their own bodies. But to assure those rights takes a carefully planned strategy and commitment, he said.
"If I were to draw up an agenda," he said, "I would tell you to organize to be sure there is no expansion of involuntary commitment in this country. Don't let the existing balance be pushed back. Mobilize in legislatures across the country."
The agenda should include fighting for the right to be a part of all treatment decisions, he said, and for a system that is responsive to consumers, "not just those who are easy to treat."
Levy said the mentally ill need to know the laws and their rights and make sure they are recognized, while fighting the stigma of mental illness. And they must learn not to fear failure.
"There are bound to be setbacks. You cannot be deterred by failure. Look to success. Work for change. Be revolutionaries and know there are others just like you."
The conference continues through Aug. 7 at the University of Utah.