Mental Health Clients are Organizing in Alaska

ACORN Organizing
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Rock Creek, Montana   Since Tocqueville’s journeys in America in the 18th century, people have talked about the America affinity for associations and organizations of all shapes and sizes to the degree that their diminishment in recent decades is news itself for scholars and others. Membership has fallen like a rock in churches, unions, scouting, and other voluntary organizations. All of which makes it worth noting when groups that have never organized begin to do so, which brings me to an exceptional effort stirring now in Alaska where mental health clients are coming together to build a statewide organization to advocate and represent their interests.

MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network, is a fledgling organization getting on its feet over recent months in Alaska of all places. The spark-plug for this exciting development is a former ACORN organizer who worked in New Orleans more than twenty-five years ago named Greg Fitch. His most exciting memories of his years with ACORN involved the organizing around the savings-and-loan crisis and the Resolution Trust Corporation, remember that outfit, which managed their “bailout” of sorts. Greg had bounced around the country working with several organizations after leaving ACORN, and over the last 15 years or so ended up with his own personal experiences with the mental health system before being able to get the treatment and help he required, and in the process he found himself in Alaska.

As Fitch described it to me, he wanted to apply the lessons he had learned as an ACORN organizer and using the ACORN model and methodology and apply them to community of mental health clients. His early work has been encouraging with immediate and enthusiastic support from mental health consumers, and as the organization gets on its feet a pretty supportive response from policy makers and politicians as well. Early press in the Juneau Empire has been fair and positive which hasn’t hurt his efforts either.  I’ve signed on to help him build the organization and the board as they already begin to think about building a statewide organization and reach out for resources to support their work.

At first glance all of this might seem unusual, but it reminds me of many similar organizing projects, and none more than my time with the National Welfare Rights Organization. There, we were organizing and working for a constituency that was maligned to assist them in building an organization where they could assert their rights within a densely bureaucratic system, develop their own voice and demands, and the power to advocate and change the system where many had felt victimized as often as they felt they benefited. Furthermore, though controversial, the process of welfare recipients organizing could also impact the general public’s view of their circumstances. In the health care area the dramatic contribution made by ACT-UP in changing the way that AIDS patients received treatment and altering the priorities and policies that saved many lives is the golden standard for such client advocacy. There are also incidents of mental health consumers organizing in places like Massachusetts. The new mental health legislation passed by Congress recently also reportedly protects and advances the role of patient advocacy organizations.

It would seem past time for such organizations to build, so why not now and why not Alaska, and in fact why not everywhere across America?