Why does the Bush administration want mental health screenings for all Americans? So we can have more of this?
by Kathleen M. Flaherty, a staff attorney at Statewide Legal Services Inc. of Connecticut.
I am an attorney licensed to practice law in three states. I am a staff attorney at a legal services program. I am a graduate of Harvard Law School. And I have bipolar disorder.
I took the New York and Massachusetts bar exams after graduation. The only health-related questions those bar examining committees asked were whether I had any condition that impacted — or, if untreated, could impact — my ability to practice law. I indicated I had bipolar disorder and that I was in treatment. There was no required follow-up, and I was admitted to both Bars.
When I decided to take the Connecticut bar in 1995, I was taken aback by the application. No less than five questions related to mental health treatment. Applicants were asked about hospitalization, other treatment, whether they had one of a listed number of conditions (including bipolar disorder), what limitations they had and whether they raised their condition as a defense or in mitigation during any legal proceeding. A “yes” to any of these questions required applicants to allow all of their medical records to be released to the Bar Examining Committee.
I had to meet with a local admission committee. That panel’s interrogation revealed every stigma surrounding mental illness that you can imagine. Panel members suggested a person with mental illness would automatically harm his or her clients and break down under pressure. I pointed out that, by surviving law school, passing the bar and being in treatment, I showed I was capable of handling stress. The lawyers asked if I was taking “mood-altering” drugs. One actually whispered to me, “Are you violent?”
I had to go through two additional hearings before I was finally recommended for a conditional admission to the Bar. The judge who administered the oath to me told me in his chambers, before admitting me to the Bar in a private ceremony, that I was lucky, because “people like me” used to not be allowed into the Bar.
The truly terrible nutbars will never set foot in a psychologist’s office, and never meet this sort of institutionalized stigma.
The most rational, self-aware and functional people are those who deal with their mental health, and scapegoating is what we get for it.