Justice and Respect for People with Mental Illnesses

Lying in an emergency room in 1983, I entered into a hospital stay for mental illness that respected neither my needs nor my humanity. That ordeal changed my life. I had already graduated from college, was married and employed, but in this hospital experience, I felt reduced to being perceived as an inferior human being, a drain to my caretakers, and a burden to society. Although I had lived through several psychiatric crises since 1974, I had never felt devalued in this way.

In 1991, I experienced another hospitalization, but this time it was at Sheppard-Pratt Hospital, a private psychiatric institution founded by Quakers in Towson, Maryland. This began my firsthand experience of the Friends connection to the humane treatment of mental patients. The medical attention I received at Sheppard-Pratt profoundly helped me to understand my illness and enhanced my feelings of the dignity mental health care and mental health patients deserve.

My time at Sheppard-Pratt included the option to use the Quaker meetinghouse on the grounds. Not new to Quakerism, I found solace in that meetinghouse. While on the floor in which I was receiving treatment, I also found a distinctly different attitude among the staff toward a respect for my rights and a caring recognition of me as a human being in need. The care reflected the long-term historical commitment to the humane treatment of mental patients that Quaker institutions like Sheppard-Pratt represent.

Within the last 15 years, changes have occurred in the system of mental health care in Pennsylvania, the state in which I live. The movement by people with psychiatric diagnoses to influence their care has resulted in more responsive and more accountable patient-centered approaches to treatment. Many patients and former patients are now either working in the system or are volunteering to help others.

Volunteering in this way came naturally to me, as my early training received in a Friends school had taught me to value and become involved in community service. As a result, I became a community activist as a step to effecting changes in the mental health system and improving the lives of those of us who have experienced psychiatric emergencies. These experiences later led to paid employment. My call in life has become to work toward the elimination of unjust treatment of people with mental illnesses, as much influenced by my upbringing in the Quaker faith as my experiences of psychiatric illness myself, and I am joined by many other dogged volunteers and paid workers, Quaker and otherwise.

This movement follows in the footsteps of other civil rights movements, but lags far behind the status of the steps that have been taken to improve care of those, for example, with developmental disabilities. Mental health reforms take shape gradually throughout our country, furthered by activists such as myself. As I work, I look to the example of Quaker commitment to social justice and "that of God in every one," as George Fox said.

Blake Yohe
York, Pa.