Families as Allies joins the nation in honoring the life of President George Herbert Walker Bush.
President Bush’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990 is likely the single most important presidential action ever taken to support people with disabilities. It reflected what he knew: people with disabilities can live, work and thrive in their communities with the right kinds of support. He did not pity people with disabilities. In fact, he worked side by side with them to pass the ADA.
In a touching turn of history, President Bush’s son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, signed an executive order in 2001 instructing federal agencies to work with each other and the states to develop the kinds of support that people with mental illness need to live outside of institutions. This executive order was based on a landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case, Olmstead v. L.C., which established that the ADA applies to people with mental illness.
Mississippi is currently being sued by the United States Department of Justice pursuant to the ADA and Olmstead because we do not have enough of the right kinds of services in the community for people with mental illness. As a result, too many people end up in institutions, one of the costliest yet least effective forms of mental health care.
Our state has responded to this lawsuit with confusion. Governor Bryant and Lt. Governor Reeves have publicly supported community-based reform, but there is not a clear mechanism to bring it about. Attorney General Hood created and chairs a mental health task force that could address many of the reasons we are being sued, but that group rarely, if ever, acknowledges that the lawsuit exists or the attorney general’s defense of our current system in it. Many legislators vow to fight any changes to state-run institutions in their districts because they cannot yet envision how people could receive that same care in smaller settings near their families. Policy makers as well as the general public do not always understand that the mental health system and the funding and responsibility for it includes many systems and agencies in addition to the Department of Mental Health.
We could continue down this chaotic and disjointed path. Or we could, in the optimistic and inclusive spirit of President George H. W. Bush, all come together to figure out what kind of mental health system we need and what it would take to create it.
And what a fitting tribute to President Bush that would be.