Kathleen “Kathy” Flaherty is the only lawyer appointed to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s new 16-member Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, formed last week to review policies and make recommendations on school safety, mental health and gun violence in the wake of the horrific Newtown shooting.

To the casual observer, Flaherty’s appointment makes sense. The Harvard-educated lawyer helps low-income individuals in her job with Statewide Legal Services and she is also a volunteer with the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

But Flaherty says being a lawyer really has little to do with why she was chosen for what will likely become a high-profile commission.

“I was asked to be there as a person with mental illness,” said Flaherty.

As has been widely reported, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown shooter, reportedly had mental illness, perhaps to the point where his mother was ready to institutionalize him. While Flaherty was never violent, she did spend time in a psychiatric hospital when she was only a little older than Lanza. She overcame struggles with bipolar disorder to earn that Harvard law degree and then be admitted to practice in three states: Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.

But her story isn’t as simple as getting a diagnosis, taking some pills and functioning normally.

Looking back, she believes she dealt with anxiety and depression even while growing up in Newington, Conn.. By the time she was in college at Wellesley in Massachusetts, the problem was worsening. A biochemistry major, she was forced to drop efforts to complete her senior thesis due to the anxiety and depression.

After college, she decided to pursue a career in the law and studied up for the LSAT exam. During that year, she became more depressed. As a 23-year-old, first-year law student, the condition grew more serious.

“The manic side of my illness came out,” she said. Her behavior changed.

“I had a different personality—much more animated, much more social. I was going out more, I wasn’t going to class,” explained Flaherty. “When I did go to class I had a difficult time staying in my seat. I wasn’t doing my homework. I joined a whole bunch of student organizations and formed a new student organization. I cooked pasta dinners for people in my dorm. Needless to say, none of this was particularly conducive to being successful as a first-year law student.”

Jumping threat

Flaherty had been seeing the school psychiatrist ever since she started at Harvard. She was also taking medications. As her condition worsened, the school took notice.

“When the [resident adviser] in my dorm suggested to me that I might want to buckle down, start reading the cases and briefing them, I told her to get off my back or I would jump off the roof of Langdell Hall,” said Flaherty, referring to the law school library. “I had no intention of doing it. I just wanted her to leave me alone. She reported that to the psychiatrist, who promptly called me in for an appointment—and told me she was putting me in the hospital.”

This was not the first time the idea had been broached. The psychiatrist had been telling Flaherty all along that she was sick and that she should consider admitting herself to the hospital. Flaherty hadn’t been on board with the idea.

“I walked out of her office, but the Harvard University Police were waiting for me and brought me back inside, so I agreed to go with the ambulance attendants,” said Flaherty. “The hospital petitioned for my civil commitment, it was granted for up to six months. I was released after 60 days when my insurance ran out.”

Flaherty said part of her personality tends to push boundaries and she had initially refused medications in the hospital. Already sounding like a lawyer, she said she made sure the hospital could prove she met the statutory requirements to be forcefully medicated.

But as soon as a nurse gave her the first shot, “it worked to knock down the mania pretty quickly,” Flaherty recalls. “And as soon as I could focus, they gave me materials to read. And as soon as I read the symptoms of the manic side of bipolar disorder, it was abundantly clear to me that I had it.”

Flaherty, who was unable to continue her first year of law school that year, said Harvard made it a condition upon her return the following year that she had to take her medication. By that point, she had every intention of doing so. Flaherty made it through law school just fine after that, graduating in 1994.

“After graduation, with the help of my psychiatrist, I tried to go off medication, but that didn’t work. So, ever since, I have always stayed on medication of some kind or another,” she said. “Because a lot of them have not worked for me, I have been on 32 medications since 1990. I’ve been on the same medications for the last 10 years or so, but it took a very long time to find something that worked.”

Support groups

Flaherty said her illness is no longer a problem on a day-to-day basis. She said even more important than medication is to eat right, sleep well, manage stress and spend time with family and friends. She’s married and has a dog and a cat.

She agrees she would have a more difficult time with her illness if, like many of her clients, she was facing problems with employment or paying rent. At Statewide Legal Services, Flaherty mainly helps low-income residents who call with housing and benefits problems.

Flaherty said many of those clients also suffer from mental illness. “With the struggles my clients face, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be depressed,” said Flaherty.

In her own time, Flaherty volunteers for the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. She has done presentations for the group about what she’s gone through. She leads support groups and also trains other people to lead them. And she’s gone to schools to speak to teachers about how to recognize early signs of mental illness in children.

Plenty busy, Flaherty is on the board of the Connecticut chapter of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, as well as the board of Advocacy Unlimited, a group that offers education and training for persons with, or in recovery from, mental health disorders.

What Flaherty has endured, and what she knows about mental illness, is what she plans to bring to the table with the commission formed in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Other members include Norwalk’s fire chief, the University of Connecticut police chief, a Newtown teacher and several college professors and psychiatric professionals.

Late last week, Flaherty said that the group has not yet met, nor has she received any materials from Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, who will chair the panel. The committee will report its findings by March 15, in time for the state legislature to act on any proposals.

In speaking with other commission members, Flaherty plans to try to erase certain “stigmas” associated with mental illness. For instance, she says just because you have a bipolar disorder does not mean you’re violent.

When it comes to what happened in Newtown and her feelings about it, Flaherty isn’t ready to open up yet. Nor does she have a set agenda in mind for possible reforms.

“I don’t want to say anything at this point other than it was a terribly sad event that none of us would ever want to see happen,” said Flaherty. “It sounds trite to say bring good out of something terrible but I hope that’s the end result of this.”