Sean Strub’s Speech on the AIDS Movement
(Column: Sex and Relationships)
Applying lessons from the AIDS movement to the mental health movement
Michelle Bruenn
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Today the mental health movement faces many of the same challenges that the AIDS movement has struggled with in the past. Twenty years ago people with AIDS were confronted with hatred, fear and ignorance; through organization and empowerment they have made great strides toward achieving the acceptance and understanding of society at large. Sean Strub recounted the progress of the AIDS movement and issued a call for further action in a speech delivered on December 1, 2005 at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco.
“I want to review the roots of our movement….Way back in 1983, a small, courageous group of guys with AIDS…met at a gay health conference in Denver and wrote what has come to be known as The Denver Principles….Written at a time of great social fear and political hysteria, they spelled out the rights and responsibilities of people with AIDS. I quote: ‘We condemn attempts to label us as victims, a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally patients, a term that implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are People with AIDS.’ They demanded the right to, quote, ‘be involved at every level of decision-making and, specifically, to serve on the boards of directors of provider organizations.…’

It was a powerful and radical concept. In the history of humankind, never before had sufferers of a disease united to assert their rights….The Denver Principles expressed a fundamental truth: to be successful, the fight against the epidemic must include the people who have the disease as equal partners in the battle. That model empowered our community to create a massive AIDS service delivery system from scratch in a remarkably short period of time under difficult circumstances…it was our empowered voice that educated them. When the nation's political leadership failed to address the emerging crisis—and was content to watch us die—our collective empowerment gave us the political muscle to force change.”
The Denver Principles should serve as a template for the mental health community; we must declare our right to be involved in our treatment, to be part of the organizations that represent us, and to be treated as People with Mental Illnesses instead of victims or patients. We have stayed in the background too long; the AIDS movement is proof that empowerment comes from becoming part of the struggle for change on an individual level—from forming a treatment plan with a psychiatrist to activism on a national level. Strub challenges AIDS organizations to “Bring people with HIV into [the] decision-making—at all levels….” By taking an active part in the organizations that represent our community, we can ensure that our needs are fulfilled and that our movement progresses in the direction that benefits us as People with Mental Illnesses.
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