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He was of a mind to help

By Tom Davis

Eric Rosenthal didn't need to have a father withschizophrenia or a friend with bipolar disorder to care about mental illness.

He just had to see it.

A decade ago, he was working for an organization calledMinnesota Advocates for Human Rights, investigating the abuses of poor peoplein Mexico.He met a mental-health advocate who asked him to visit a decrepit Mexicanpsychiatric institution.

What he saw made Greystone Psychiatric Hospital look like the Holiday Inn.

"There were people literally kept naked. People werecovered with urine and feces. There wasn't any running water. They brought inbuckets," he said.

"It was truly horrifying. I realized, wow, somebodyneeds to do something and do it fast."

Rosenthal is a Georgetown-trained lawyer who, at that pointin his life, didn't need any more responsibilities. He was just starting outhis legal career and was looking to put down some roots and possibly start afamily.

But what he saw in Mexico- and then later, in Hungary,Kosovo, Armeniaand Paraguay- made him feel responsible.

"It was a definitely a feeling that, if I didn't do it,nobody else would," he said.

Rosenthal got a $25,000 fellowship from Echoing Green, agroup of venture capitalists who promote social entrepreneurship, and formedMental Disability Rights International. He serves as its executive director.

Ten years later, he's turned it into the largestmental-health advocacy group in the United States that concentratessolely on foreign affairs.

Rosenthal's organization has limited resources, though amajor donor is George Soros, the billionaire whobacked John Kerry for president last year.

Hope and determination, however, are his fuel. He'senergized by frequent foreign trips - he takes about six or seven a year, paidfor by grants from Soros, the Public WelfareFoundation and several non-profit groups - that connect him to the poverty anddespair.

"In order to do the work, you have to experience itfirsthand," he said. "I work with activists, and they do wonderfulwork. They give us the access to the institutions."

"This is the mission that MDRI has undertaken - toensure that people with mental disabilities are treated as humans," saidClarence J. Sundram, the founding chairman of the NewYork State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled.

Rosenthal's staff is small - five people in Washington andthree in Europe. But they make full use ofwhat they have.

MDRI documents conditions, publishes reports on human-rightsenforcement and promotes international oversight of the rights of people withmental disabilities.

The organization draws on the experience of attorneys,mental-health professionals, human-rights advocates and people with mentaldisabilities. Psychologists and social workers volunteer their time to goabroad and educate people on how to improve their mental-health systems.

They visit psychiatric institutions and observe theconditions. They meet with social workers and counselors and teach them ways toimprove mental-health care. They also meet with policy makers and push forchange.

MDRI has used the threat of legal action to force countriesto transform their mental-health systems. In Paraguay, for example, MDRIdiscovered patients living in what appeared to be chicken coops.

"We came up with an accord with Paraguay thatwill lead them to de-institutionalize many patients within five years,"said Alison Hillman, director of MDRI's AmericasAdvocacy Initiative.

Some critics say Rosenthal's organization should concentrateon America'smental-health conditions first. What's happening here, they say, can resemblewhat's happening abroad.

Rosenthal, however, says many organizationare responding to the domestic needs. He's simply taking up a cause that othershave ignored.

"We're trying to help fill a void and look at problemsthat have been overlooked," he said. "The second thing is, the abuses are more extreme in the rest of theworld."

What he's seeing abroad often resembles America'smental institutions from 40 and 50 years ago. "They're remaking the samemistakes we made in the 1960s and 1970s. They're creating little ghettos,"Rosenthal said.

Currently, through its Kosovo office, MDRI is creating amodel to respond to human-rights abuses in countries shaken by conflict. Rosenthalplans to return there this fall and oversee the project.

For Rosenthal, MDRI was the perfect merge of all his worlds.He often traveled when his father worked for the U.S. Agency for InternationalDevelopment. He went to college in Chicago, buthis extended family is from New York and New Jersey.

He worked as an intern for Human Rights Watch while he wasin law school. He went to the Middle East,where he investigated the use of torture in prisons.

His maternal grandmother had manic depression, though heplays down the influence it had on his life and deeds. To Rosenthal, life'sproblems don't necessarily originate in your own back yard.

"I feel like I stumbled into this work through myhuman-rights work because nobody else was doing it," he said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack,NJ.

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