More than 200 people from all over the United States gathered at the State Capitol this week to protest the stigma of mental illness, calling for justice and equality for mental health service consumers.
Clad with signs such as "Don't Lock Us In Or Out" and "End Discrimination of Jobs and Houses," current and formal mental patients, friends and family sang songs, listened to speeches and carried candles inside of paper cups to symbolize their unity and determination."These candles are a symbol that we, as former and current mental patients, are no longer afraid to stand up in public and say we will fight for our freedom until all of our brothers and sisters are free," said Joe Rogers, President of the National Mental Health Consumer's Association. (See related story on B5.)
Rogers, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, spent more than 10 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals and nine months homeless on the streets of New York City. He is now a civic leader and leading advocate for people with serious mental illness.
Rogers is in Utah for the fourth annual national mental patient's conference, Alternatives '88, at the University of Utah this week. The demonstration marked the beginning of the conference, which attracts hundreds of people from all over the country who have been or are currently diagnosed as mentally ill.
"People think mental illness is something you have to hide, but its not," Rogers said. "This is the first time we've ever held a public event like this one. We felt it was time to come out of the classrooms and closets."
Rogers said mental health service consumers are often treated as second-class citizens - denied jobs, housing and insurance, and stereotyped on television, radio and in movies. He said the group is fighting for human rights for people with mental illnesses.
Several participants echoed Rogers' feelings.
"In our country, the Constitution guarantees all people certain rights. My pursuit of happiness is the same as yours," said a conference attendee who asked not to be identified.
The man, who traveled to Utah from Ohio, said society mistreats people with mental illness because they are not educated about the subject.
"The best thing people can do is try to understand one another, why people are the way they are, and be more patient and kind with people who are different from the mainstream."
Brian Moss, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, told the group the key to changing society's attitude lies in the actions of the government.
"People in society are going to do what they are going to do. But the government has a responsibility to level the playing field," Moss said.
He said the Senate could be doing more to protect consumers of mental health services. For example, he said the fair housing legislation recently approved in the Senate does not include provisions for mental service consumers. "I abhor what has happened in the last eight years concerning mental health consumers."
The conference will continue through Sunday at the U. Coordinators are encouraging Utahns who are past and present mental health consumers to attend.