With the clarion cry, “Our destination is dignity,” they set out across the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on one of the hottest days of our southern summer. They came from all corners of America—California, Georgia, and New York—with the solitary purpose of seeking dignity for all persons with mental illness. What a noble goal for very honorable people.
The Destination Dignity March proved to be a landmark event in the annals of American mental health. Almost a thousand people gathered on the National Mall at noon on August 24 to demand the simplest of things, that which most of us take for granted and never think twice about—basic human dignity. Just imagine being required to seek one’s own basic human dignity. The National Mall has never before been witness to such an event.
Many present had been robbed of their human dignity by traumatic events in their lives, by stigma from their neighbors, by a care system that did not care. Now, they were here to reclaim that simple human dignity loudly and proudly. They were here reclaiming the voice they had lost in their own past.
“What do you want?” In unison, they responded, “Dignity!” “When do you want it?” “Now!” they shouted, “Now!”
You might ask, where does one find basic human dignity. I suspect it is near the corner of recovery and respect, and just down the street from support and good friends.
Speakers ranged broadly from the D.C. community and beyond. Among others including me, they featured Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren of Florida, who brought peer supporters into her court room to assist with disposition of cases involving persons with mental illness, and Brian Hepburn, the very new Executive Director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, who supported consumer activities in Maryland for many years. The refrain from all speakers was similar: We are here in solidarity with you; we support you in your just cause; we will be here to support you in the future.
The Destination Dignity March was held in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Hence, we must ask whether the current mental health bills in the House and Senate promote or detract from the basic human dignity of persons with mental illness. Clearly, the first principle of any bill must be to do no harm to those with mental illness and to preserve and promote their human dignity.
The march now is being planned as an annual event to raise consciousness and to give voice to more mental health consumers seeking basic human dignity. The National Mall can hold about 2 million persons. It would take seven National Malls to accommodate the estimated 14 million American adults with serious mental illness. Just think about it—seven National Malls!
Our hats are off to Eduardo Vega, CEO of Mental Health America of San Francisco. Harvey Rosenthal, Executive Director, New York Association of Psychosocial Rehabilitation Services, and Deborah Plotnick, Policy Director, Mental Health America, for taking the lead in organizing and coordinating this very impressive event. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
Next year, let’s hope that 100,000 persons come to seek restoration of their basic human dignity. I plan to be there. I hope that you do as well.