The Denial of Mental Illness is Alive and Well

Ideas

Earlier this week, I had dinner with a recently retired lawyer who has spent the past 40-odd years working to protect the rights of people with mental illness. She shared with me an anecdote that, she said, had set the course of her entire career:

One day in the summer of 1970, she was working at a St. Louis legal clinic on her law school break, when a 17-year-old girl walked in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was black. The girl was white — and pregnant. The couple wanted to stay together and raise their baby. The girls’ parents were hell-bent on splitting them apart — and on making sure that they wouldn’t have a mixed-race grandchild. And so, they were having the teenager committed to a mental hospital where they could force her to have an abortion. “There was nothing we could do,” the lawyer told me. “There were no…

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