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International Human Rights Day in Norwalk focuses on mental illness

Hour - 12/14/2017

Dec. 14--NORWALK -- As recently as 30 years ago, people will mental illnesses were institutionalized in places such as Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown.

Valerie Williams, executive director of Keystone House in Norwalk, recalls having worked at the psychiatric facility after graduating college in 1984.

"People were dropped off and lived their lives there," Williams said. "It was really an eye-opening experience for me. And what I saw is truly the individuals that lived there had no rights. They were told when to get out of bed, when they could go to bed, when they would eat and what they would eat."

Williams was one of four panelists invited to lift the silence and raise awareness about mental health as part of an International Human Rights Day event at Norwalk City Hall on Tuesday evening. More than 50 people attended community conversation, which was arranged by the Norwalk Human Relations Commission.

Mayor Harry Rilling read a proclamation declaring Dec. 12, 2017, as International Human Rights Day in Norwalk.

For more than 20 years, the NHRC has held events memorializing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Affording equal rights to persons with mental illnesses falls well within its parameters, according to Norwalk Human Relations Director Adam Bovilsky.

"Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to the realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality," said Bovilsky, reading a section of the declaration.

The event began with a short film of people sharing their experiences living with Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental illnesses, and proceeded to the panelists explaining what's available to persons needing help.

Keystone House, established in 1972, operates staffed group homes, transitional housing and a community living center with structured activities. All aim to build skills and engage persons in society.

In any given year, 43.8 million American adults experience mental illness. Five to 6 percent of American adults have a serious mental illness; about 2 percent have disorders that are long-term and disabling, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NAMI Connecticut Executive Director Kate Mattias, who was among the panelists, said recovery is possible and persons can live well. But early intervention is key.

"The earlier one can intervene, the better the outcome," Mattias said.

Panelist Kathy Flaherty, executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., shared her experiences living with bio-polar disorder, being institutionalized, attempting suicide and taking medications to manage her illness.

"I don't take any medication today," Flaherty said. "I don't need to. I don't think that is everybody's situation and I very much respect the choices of people who choose to make their recovery through using medication."

Flaherty said medication is often viewed as "the only tool in the tool box." She said many falsely rely on medications alone, which can make things worse.

"Often times the medication causes its own issues," Flaherty said. "And they give you another medication to deal with the side effects, and then you have more problems. So by limiting yourself to one tool in the toolbox, you're cutting off opportunities for people to recover and do well."

For more information about help recovering from mental illness, visit,, and


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