Young Lawyer Chair Messages
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Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015: Advocacy in Mental Health Law: The Challenge of Our Generation's Future
Mental health. The term is broad, unwieldy and poorly defined. In fact, its definition changes depending on the profession. In the legal field, mental health has, in the past, primarily dealt with interdiction, curatorship, etc. — all means of restricting and controlling people with mental health issues. Due to increasing awareness, mental health has evolved from an area of control toward gaining and maintaining independence for people with mental illnesses or disabilities, as well as ensuring that those people have the appropriate avenues of treatment. This is where the younger generation of lawyers will have to step up and further advocate for the rights of all individuals.
In the past 10 years, our country has taken bold steps in recognition of the rights of people with mental illnesses or disabilities. The Affordable Care Act now requires that all health insurance policies cover mental health and substance use disorder services. Additionally, our state was a pioneer in requiring employer-sponsored health plans issued by Louisiana insurers to cover treatment for autism spectrum disorders. Such steps have increased the public’s awareness of mental health issues and have increased the independence and coping mechanisms of people with mental illness or disabilities.
With the advancement in our society from control to encouraging independence comes advocacy groups championing the causes of those people suffering from mental illness. Most notable is the National Alliance on Mental Illness with local chapters throughout our country. These advocacy groups are developing more each day, and their power to promote the causes of those with mental illness is growing. However, advocacy outside the legal system can only take these groups and the individuals they represent so far. It is our job, as the legal community, to help them take the steps to ensure they are treated fairly in society.
Having a child with autism has brought this cause close to home and taught me a great deal about the need for mental health law advocacy. The ever-increasing rate of diagnosis serves as a motivator that drives the focus on awareness and early intervention in order to maximize the chance of success for all. I have appeared before Senate committees advocating for the rights of Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) to assist children with autism without extreme and burdensome oversight from additional governing boards. This advocacy helped, for the most part, free BCBAs to do what they are trained to do: help children with autism and other developmental disorders.
To the young lawyer community, this type of advocacy will fall upon us: to ensure that the rights of all individuals are protected and that treatment needed to gain independence is available without impediment. We must strive to ensure that evolution of mental health advocacy continues on the path of independence and does not fall back to control. We must be the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves.