We owe it to legislators to change the tone of our debate

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The mental health advocacy community is so deeply divided on the question of involuntary treatment that it is probably generous to call us a “community” at all. I have often wished we could dial down the vitriol and discuss issues like AOT with a mutual recognition that we are all good people with the same laudable goal of helping folks with severe mental illness maintain safety and sanity.

It seems Pollyanish to think that by overcoming this acrimony, we might find a path to resolving our policy differences and forge a common agenda. But for me, the need to change the tone of our debate is really about what we owe to the policymakers, legislators and fence-sitters who are listening in and hoping to learn something from us.

Right now we are generating heat at the expense of light. We risk squandering the moment of national focus that Rep. Murphy's bill has brought to our issues.

The noble experiment that Scott led us through this week was a great first step. I gained a lot from connecting with each of my fellow participants and learning about the personal (mostly painful) experiences that led each to his or her current perspective. And now that we are all pals, I look forward to getting right back to talking about -- yes, even debating  -- AOT and the various other controversial pieces of the Murphy bill.

If we can pull that off without falling into the old trap of impugning each other's motives and integrity, we will have truly earned the right to call ourselves the "Defiant 8," by defying the toxic political culture of our times. Who knows, we might even inspire some brave souls in Congress to defy the forces of gridlock and reflexive partisanship. 

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Brian Stettin is the Policy Director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia that works to remove legal barriers to the treatment of severe mental illness. In 1999, as an Assistant New York State Attorney General, Brian was instrumental in conceiving and drafting "Kendra's Law," landmark legislation establishing Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) in New York. After leaving the Attorney General's Office in 2007, Brian served as Special Counsel to the New York State Commissioner of Criminal Justice Services and Counsel to the Health Committee of the New York Assembly.  Since joining the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2009, Brian has worked with state legislators and policymakers across the U.S. to improve mental health commitment laws and establish AOT programs. Brian is a 1991 graduate of the City College of New York and a 1995 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.


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