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The Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies, Inc. Coalition Briefs
An electronic newsletter of the Coalition's Center for Rehabilitation and Recovery

Elizabeth Saenger, PhD, Editor
No. 102-1 April 2014

The Center for Rehabilitation and Recovery provides assistance to the New York City mental health provider community through expert trainings, focused technical assistance, evaluation, information dissemination and special projects.

What Does an 800-lb. Gorilla Do in Louisiana?

Elizabeth Saenger, PhD

If you heard a version of this joke as a child, you may remember what an 800-lb. gorilla does: Anything it wants. And the 800-lb. gorilla in this Louisiana tale did that, until the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law stepped into the thicket.

Until recently, Louisiana would not admit law school graduates to the bar if they had a psychiatric diagnosis.

A felon whose attempted second degree murder charge was lowered to assault was admitted. A man convicted of possession and intent to distribute cocaine was admitted. A person whose misdeeds included a demonstrated “lack of candor” was admitted. And they were all accepted completely (vs provisionally), without probation requirements.

Enter JH, who had been unconditionally admitted to the bar in another state, where she had practiced without any problems for six years. And enter LH, who had been practicing in two other states, where she had been unconditionally admitted, and had practiced without incident for three years.  Both JH and LH had psychiatric records, but no criminal records. By admitting them, Louisiana would raise the overall level of integrity in the state’s legal profession by slightly shrinking the criminal percentage of said body.

Yet Louisiana did not accept JH, LH, and other qualified attorneys, as full members of the bar, despite their demonstrated competence. Instead, they were admitted provisionally because of their psychiatric status, and directed to submit to ongoing probation, monitoring at their jobs, and other mistreatment from the gorilla.

The good news is that the Bazelon Center represented two attorneys with psychiatric diagnoses, TQ and JA, pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After that, the United States Department of Justice sent a letter to the gorilla stating that admissions “questions based on an applicant’s status as a person with a mental health diagnosis do not serve the Court’s worthy goal of identifying unfit applicants, are in fact counterproductive to ensuring that attorneys are fit to practice, and violate the standards of applicable civil rights laws.”

The reasoning underlying the Department of Justice letter is applicable to bar associations in other states. It also applies to licensing in other professions, including behavioral health, when the ADA is violated in similar circumstances.

Recommended Next Steps for You, the Reader

First. This victory for commonsense and fairness deserves a round of applause, and a celebration with the finest champagne money can buy. For those on a budget, congratulations and thanks to communications@bazelon.org may suffice.

Second. Learn more about this case, and other legal action that affect people in recovery. We will continue to cover legal issues from psychiatric directives to seclusion and restraint, albeit not in every issue. Keep your eyes peeled—and if you don’t see information you want, let me know at esaenger@coalitionny.org.

Third. Check out these other suggestions from the Bazelon Center.

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Lemonade Out of Brick Walls

Elizabeth Saenger, PhD

One of my clients, Hudson, lost a brilliant career due to symptoms diagnosed as schizophrenia. Forced to support himself on disability payments, he felt his life was meaningless.

Hudson’s perceptions reminded me of a story I had heard about a room in the back ward of a state hospital. I told him about that room, crowded with terminally ill patients in rows of beds. The room was barren except for a small window. Each morning, the man in the bed near the window would painfully prop himself up to look outside. He would then tell the other patients about young lovers kissing under the cherry blossoms, or the milkman feeding his horse, or children jumping rope. Morning after morning, this invalid’s stories provided the only respite as the patients waited for their lives to end.

One night, the invalid died and another patient was moved to his bed. The next morning, this patient struggled to raise himself up to see the world outside, and continue the ward’s tradition. However, when he did so, he saw only a brick wall.

Hudson realized this man had the option to create something out of nothing to sustain himself and his fellow patients. “That story is something I can use,” he told me, as if I had just handed him a hammer when he wanted to nail down a board. Over time, he crafted his own “window of opportunity” for pro bono work between hospitalizations.

I believe Hudson understood his situation intellectually when he saw me, and recognized that people can make lemonade out of lemons. Still, he was stuck until he heard a story that reflected his feeling of being "up against a brick wall," and showed him metaphorically that even in that position, he could enrich the lives of others, and by doing so, nourish himself.

*The name and some identifying characteristics of this client may have been changed.

 Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Saenger, PhD. Story reprinted by permission.

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Free Resources on Peers in the Behavioral Health Workforce

Pillars of Peer Support

Pillars of Peer Support works to provide a foundation for Peer Support Services (PSS), including a strategy for national credentialing for peer specialists, and Medicaid funding for PSS. The organization offers four reports with concrete recommendations and analysis from noted experts in managed care, behavioral health, and peer advocacy, on its home page.

The Coalition for Behavioral Health Agencies, Inc

The Coalition offers specific services tailored to the needs of agencies and individuals in the New York area. These resources focus on the integration of peers into the behavioral workforce, and include a wiki of online resources you can access without a password, and a series of trainings.

The next training is on Dual Relationships Among Peer and Non-Peer Staff. It will cover problems that can arise when peers receive treatment, housing, or other services at the agency they work at, and conflicts of interest or dual relationships arise. It will be on April 30, from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Doors open at 9:30 AM.

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Subscribe or Unsubscribe

To subscribe or unsubscribe to RECOVERe-works, a free publication of the Center for Rehabilitation and Recovery at the Coalition, please email esaenger@coalitionny.org.

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