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For a half century or more, friends, families, medical professionals and others concerned for the mentally ill have fought to remove what they rightly term the "stigma" of mental illness, the concept that mental illness, unlike physical illness, is somehow shameful.
But the long fight against the mental illness stigma has been turned on its head by a most unlikely source, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, along with allies from other groups long associated with advocating for those with mental illness and their families.
They are fighting to retain a law, passed in secret three years ago, that prohibits the release of records of Civil War soldiers and other long-deceased patients of the state's mental hospitals. The department claimed release of this historic information would embarrass the soldiers' descendants and contribute to the revival of the stigma.
The law, passed in 2011 at the request of the DMHAS, was in response to a Freedom of Information Commission decision to allow the release of the records after a Civil War historian, Central Connecticut history professor Matthew Warshauer, had unsuccessfully sought information about Civil War veterans who died in the state's insane asylum, as it was then known.
Mr. Warshauer was doing research on the treatment received by former members of the Union Army for "nostalgia" or "soldier's heart," a mental illness that would be known as "shell shock" in World War I and post traumatic stress disorder to veterans of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another Connecticut author, Robert Robillard, was denied access to the records of Amy Archer Gilligan, the Windsor nursing home owner who killed several of her residents by poisoning them with arsenic nearly a century ago. Both authors say the department first claimed the records no longer existed, which says something more about the DMHAS.
The bill, barring release of the records, was passed after DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer testified it was her department's "firm belief that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information released." Legislators bought the argument and hid the legislation in a 98-section public health bill that was brought before the General Assembly in the 2011 session's closing hours and passed by many who didn't read it.
Now, in the interest of history, the Connecticut State Library, the Freedom of Information Commission and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information are trying to undo that law with a bill that would allow the release of mental health records 50 years after the death of the person involved.
The bill has to overcome the renewed opposition of Commissioner Rehmer, who testified last month that, "Though the individuals are deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed." She was joined by Deron Drumm, the director of a mental health advocacy group, Advocacy Unlimited Inc., who testified that families might be embarrassed about their ancestors' "inability to receive private services" for their wartime wounds. That's even more of a stretch than the DMHAS view that someone would be embarrassed that his great-great-grandfather suffered from "soldier's heart" after fighting for the Union in the 1860s.
The bill, proposed by State Librarian Kendall Wiggin, would transfer records of historical significance to the State Library's archives but not be made public until 50 years after the patient's death. This would put Connecticut's rules in harmony with those of the National Archives.
We cannot conceive of a family that would be embarrassed by the revelation that an ancestor was treated for soldier's heart or any other mental illness in a state facility a century ago. Nor can we understand why advocates for the mentally ill would stigmatize them by suggesting such a thing.
The General Assembly should ignore these manufactured fears and make a valuable contribution to American history and medical knowledge by passing this bill.