Amendment would clarify mentally ill's right to vote

TOPEKA — It could be a new mother, a soldier returning from war or an unemployed worker. Under a never-used clause in the state constitution, the Legislature could take away their right to vote for having a mental illness.

Mental health advocates say that one in five people — or 20 percent of the population — have dealt with some form of mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illness includes depression — such as what a new mother or unemployed worker might experience — post-traumatic stress syndrome and bipolar disorder.

Between now and Nov. 2 voters are being asked whether the Kansas Constitution should be amended so that the mentally ill could not be denied their right to vote.

Bradley Austin Luthe, 19, is a student at Cowley College. He is studying to become a social worker and earning As and Bs.

He is registered to vote and "has been looking forward to it for a long time."

He has also been dealing with mental illness for much of his life.

"I would be disgusted if I didn't have a right to vote, I know politics and I know what is going on. Just because I have bipolar and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) doesn't mean I'm crazy," he said.

He and other mental health advocates will be speaking at a rally Monday in Wichita urging voters to vote yes on Question 2 on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The rally will be from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Sedgwick County Extension Center, 7001 W. 21st St.

The rally is one of several across the state leading up to the election.

Luthe's mother, Sherri Luthe, said the rallies and the effort to change the constitution were in part about putting a new face on mental illness, "it is the face of just about anybody walking down the street," she said.

"We need to make sure that people know mental illness isn't the debilitating witchcraft that it was thought of a long time ago," said Luthe, who is the director of parent advocacy and support services at the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas.

What it says now

The Kansas Constitution reads: "The legislature may, by law, exclude persons from voting because of mental illness or commitment to a jail or penal institution."

Voters will be asked whether they want to strike the words "mental illness."

Lawmakers and voters added the mental illness wording to the constitution in the 1970s. While it has never been used, mental health advocates say it is time to remove what they describe as archaic language that is out of step with current mental health treatment options.

"People with a mental illness are everybody," said Sheli Sweeney, director of advocacy and member services liaison for the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas. "They are us, they are our neighbors and our friends."

Kansas is not alone in having language that could restrict the voting rights of people with mental illnesses, said Bob Carolla, director of media relations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"In terms of the state provisions, it is a checkerboard," he said.

In Missouri, a person judged "mentally incompetent" or "incapacitated" by a court cannot vote nor can a person under guardianship for a mental disability or one involuntarily confined to an institution, according to a list of state laws put together by the national alliance.

In Oklahoma, a person is disqualified from voting if a court finds they are "incapacitated" or partially incapacitated." Courts are also required to decide if a person under guardianship or conservatorship may vote.

Some states include the provisions in their constitution and others have it in state law, Carolla said.

There is a trend nationally though to remove such language and in doing so remove some of the social stigma that mental illness brings, he said. The federal government recently removed from federal law all references to the term "mentally retarded," he noted.

"It does point to the fact that government and society is moving to try and clean up language so it is something more precise and even positive," Carolla said.

Wording isn't specific

Part of the problem with the Kansas wording, according to mental health advocates, is that "mental illness" covers a broad range of definitions and isn't a specific diagnosis.

"When we say one in five, that is if you even get seasonal depression or get anxiety. Sometimes it is ADHD. It covers a broad range," Dana Ellison, development coordinator for Wichita's Breakthrough Club, a nonprofit mental health group.

The language was put into the constitution at a time when there was less of an understanding on how to treat mental illness, she said.

"You still have the cognitive ability and the right to be a voting and active part of our society," she said.

Kerry Franklin, 29, was diagnosed with a mental illness at 13 and lived in and out of institutions until the Topeka State Hospital closed.

She now works in the mental health field in Wichita teaching others health and wellness and life skills and offers peer support in those areas.

"I pay taxes, I drive, I work in the mental health field now," Franklin said. "Most people they look at me and they wouldn't know that I have the mental illness."

She will be speaking at the rally in Wichita on Monday. Franklin said she is speaking out for all the children she went through the system with and the people who haven't yet been diagnosed with a mental illness.

"Some people may not have it today and maybe somebody in their family may not have it today but it might come in the future," she said.