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 personalitymuch 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."