Guest Post: Justice for all–including those with mental illness

Note from Melinda: This is a guest post from one of my all-time most awesome students, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal about what it means to be a great social worker. I asked her to write something about an issue that should matter a great deal to all social workers, both in our quest for social justice, and in our efforts to build the political power of our organizations and those we serve. Thank you, Cookie, for all you do and all you are. I’m so very, very glad to know you.

My name is Janet Cook, or simply Cookie. I am a mental health consumer (dual diagnosed) and a convicted felon. Some of you may ask yourself why I am sharing this very personal information for all to see. Am I not opening myself up to judgmental attitudes, unfair labeling and just plain old, everyday common discrimination? Yes I am, but for good reasons.

First, I could not care less about what strangers may think of me. My family and friends know me and, to borrow the infamous statement by Sally Fields after her Oscar win, “They really, really like me.” It has always been my philosophy in life that if someone does not like me I am okay with that as long as they have made at least the most basic effort to get to know me. Also, I am neither naïve nor narcissistic enough to think that everyone will like me or afford me the opportunity to be who I am without judgment.

That being said, I now come to my second reason for sharing the above information. My felony conviction, a condition over which I had control, allowed me to resume my right to vote once my civil rights were restored by completing my sentence and probation. First thing I did was re-register to vote. No lie–that is how important my right to vote is to me.

On the other hand, my mental illnesses, lifelong conditions that I never asked for but have accepted as just one part of who I am, can deny me right to vote in one of 40 states that places voting restrictions on people with mental illness, including Kansas.

In Kansas, if I am under guardianship or have been found incompetent, my right to vote is assured because the Kansas Legislature removed references to these conditions in 1974. However, prohibitions for individuals who are insane, i.e. suffer from mental illness, and felons were left in the Constitution. Am I the only one who does not see the logic in this?

Kansas SCR 1622 is a concurrent resolution that would remove the references to mental illness and suffrage rights from the Kansas Constitution. The right to vote is our most fundamental duty and honor as citizens, and struggles throughout history have sought to extend it to all. Yet in recent committee meetings some State Senators voiced belief that people should have the capacity to make proper judgment or some level of capacity before being allowed to vote. I have to ask myself how election officials might go about “testing” every registered voter to make sure he/she will make a “proper judgment” before casting a vote. Any and all ideas are welcomed.

Fortunately, SCR 1622 was passed by the full Senate by a resounding majority-38 yeas and one nay. The fight in the Kansas House is going to be a bit more of a battle. The bottom line is that all Kansans need to contact their State Representative to ask them to support SCR 1622. If you don’t live in Kansas, find out what your state’s laws are regarding the suffrage rights of those with mental illness, and connect with consumer groups advocating to extend and protect this core right.

By all accounts, approximately one in four Americans suffer from a mental illness. Look around you right now, at your work place, at the mall, in the grocery store or wherever. Every fourth person you see or meet in all likelihood suffers from a mental illness. Do you or anyone else have the right to tell them that “Hey, you can’t vote. You’re just too crazy.” Sound silly? Guess not in at least 40 out of 50 states in the great country of ours. And at the same time, the social work profession tells consumers, including those with mental illness, that they need to take responsibility for their own services, engage in their communities, advocate to protect the services on which they depend. We can’t pay lip service to empowerment if we’re not willing to fight for the most basic power–that of the vote–and against discriminatory efforts to deny it.

Spread the word. To find out who your Kansas State Representative is and how to contact him or her, go to http://www.kslegislature.org. Tell your representative that you’re a voter, and that you think every Kansas citizen should be too.

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