First Person Singular: Fish versus the Mentally Ill

By Dinah Miller, MD

[Spring 2005; Vol. 31, No. 3; Pg 9, 14]

I joined the MPS legislative committee to make a difference, to have my voice heard, to be part of something important-- pick your cliché. I find myself frustrated, at times, by the way the world works, and I wanted a forum to impact some of the legislation that affects our profession and our patients’ ability to access treatment.

At my first committee meeting—where I was, strangely enough, the only female psychiatrist—I volunteered to be a Bill Screener. My job is to check the Maryland General Assembly’s website and review proposed legislation for its relevance to psychiatry, then to flag such legislation and to notify the rest of the committee. As one of ten screeners, I am only responsible for proposed bills ending in the numbers 81 to 90.

I found the website, added it to my list of Favorites, and was eager to begin my search. Tort reform, scope of practice bills, issues of funding and confidentiality: I was ready. After a few days, my numbers popped up, and I began screening.

Days went by, and there was no important mental health legislation ending in the numbers 81 to 90. The other Bill Screeners were e-mailing and posting notices on the Legislative Affairs Committee Bulletin Board. There was proposed legislation on Clinical Review Panels for forced medication, malpractice legislation related to lawyer fee-splitting, and a proposal to criminalize the failure to report child abuse, to name just a few. I suppose I wanted to be responsible for flagging something so crucial, but days went by, and my numbers didn’t appear.

Finally, Senate Bill 185 caught my attention. The bill is titled “Fishing Licenses—Disability Exemption,” and the synopsis reads, “Authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to issue 1-day fishing license exemptions to nonprofit organizations which take physically or mentally disabled individuals fishing; and providing a fishing license exemption for specified disabled veterans and mental health patients under specified conditions.”

Of course we should support this, I thought, it benefits our patients. But then, I wondered, what about the rights of the fish? Or what if a mentally ill vegetarian is offended by such legislation? What constitutes a specified group and do two guys taking Prozac qualify? How disabled does the veteran have to be? I found myself perplexed by the concept of the bill, and was surprised that innuendos in the fishing laws are the domain of our elected legislators.

Every morning at 7:50, a Baltimore City judge enters my kitchen. She arrives wearing tattered sweats and large hair curlers on the top and sides of her head which all create an oddly extra-terrestrial effect. Each morning, I am surprised that she has once again made it across the street without being arrested. (In fairness, I look no better at that time of morning, but I do remain indoors.) Our dogs romp together, and we get a few minutes to drink coffee and discuss the more pressing issues in our lives. Topics include our children and pets, and important neighborhood issues such as leaf disposal and recycling. And now they include any legislation ending in the numbers 81 to 90 that has caught my eye. We aren’t picky, and don’t limit our analysis to those bills with consequence to psychiatry or the judiciary. So, for example, we might be happy to comment on the proposal to rename BWI airport, whether police officers should be allowed to get a blood alcohol level on an intoxicated hunter who has already shot someone, or the proposed legislation to define computation of age (essentially, you would get older on your birthday). Senate Bill 185 was ripe for speculation over coffee and dog bones. What, I wondered, would inspire someone to propose such a bill?

“On the Legislative Committee for the Maryland Judiciary, we call this a Red-Headed Eskimo,” said the judge (I’ll protect her identity to continue the courtroom illusion of natural curl) as she pitched another milk bone to her hungry Black Lab. “When a proposed bill is so limited in its application that it appears to have been proposed for either an individual or an extremely rare set of circumstances, the term is offered almost as an explanation. We might ask each other, ‘Where did this come from?’ A committee member will offer as a guess: ‘Red-headed Eskimo.’"

There had to be a story, and I had to know it. I had an image of a legislator’s son, dressed in a bulky parka, being carted off to prison, tackle in one hand, squirming fish in the other.

I phoned the office of Senator Paula Hollinger, the Chairman of the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee and was told the bill was sponsored at the request of the Department of Natural Resources. Senator Hollinger, I was assured, wouldn’t know the story behind it, and I was redirected to the office of Emily Wilson at the DNR.

Ms. Wilson was confused by my inquiry. She had no colorful story to tell and there was no specific patient who’d been arrested--or forced to go bowling-- for want of a fishing license.

“We get a number of requests for exemptions from non-profit groups each year,” she said in a gentle voice with a sincere tone, “and we thought it would be nice to be able to grant them.” Ms. Wilson requested our support for the legislation, and asked if I would call her if I became aware of any opposition to it.

So, this story ends on an anti-climactic note; the reality wasn’t as intriguing as what was swimming around in my imagination. I am, however, heartened that my cynicism could be blanched, and that there are people who simply want to be nice to our patients.

The legislative committee quickly agreed to support this proposal, and moved on to proposed legislation with broader and more controversial implications. Still, I’m left with the words of MPS President Steve Daviss, “A bill to help the mentally ill go fishing? It doesn’t take a brain sturgeon to see that we can’t let this flounder!”