Rally: Change Constitution

A Wichita rally on Monday urging Kansas voters to amend the state constitution so the mentally ill would not be denied their right to vote drew about 50 people.

The rally, held at the Sedgwick County Extension Office, was one of several scheduled across the state between now and Election Day on Nov. 2.

"We are invested in getting this message out," said Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare, Sedgwick County's mental health center. "It should be a no-brainer for the voters in November to remove the stigmatizing language about mental illness from the constitution."

At times, the rally, held indoors, turned into more of an educational workshop as speakers provided information about the prevalence of mental illnesses.

The wording in the Kansas Constitution dates back to 19th-century societal views, said Sheli Sweeney, director of advocacy and member services liaison for the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.

"It is an old phrase dating back to the time when people who were considered insane were precluded from voting, as were convicted felons," Sweeney said. "It was in a time when people with mental illnesses were incarcerated."

In 1974, that wording in the Kansas Constitution was changed from the word "insane" to "people with mental illnesses."

"We think it is time to get that wording out of there," Sweeney told the audience on Monday, encouraging each of them to go out and tell or e-mail friends and family about the election.

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

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

The Legislature has never enacted a law preventing the mentally ill from voting.

Mental health specialists estimate one in five people — or 20 percent of the population — have dealt with some form of mental illness in their lifetime. It can include varying types of illnesses including depression, post traumatic stress syndrome and bipolar disorder.

A few of the speakers on Monday told their own stories of mental illness.

"Life is a journey that sometimes takes a turn into a long, dark tunnel called depression," said Nancy Craddock of Winfield. "I started my journey when, in 2002, a doctor diagnosed me with major depression. I lost everything — my home, my job, my beloved pet Jasper was given to another person because I could not care for him."

Through treatment and understanding, Craddock said, she has made a comeback.

"Mental illness is no different from being diagnosed with blood pressure, diabetes or other medical problems," she said.

Wichitan Barb Linder drew some cheers and applause when she spoke of the comeback she, too, has made.

Mental illness, she said, is not a sign of a character defect or moral failure.

"I am struck by the paradox of continuing to abide with a state constitution that gives the Legislature — which is elected by all the people — the right to discriminate against a particular group afflicted with illnesses that are in no way their fault," Linder said. "The Kansas I know is filled with informed, caring families and friends.

"The Kansas I know is better than the current language in our constitution. Let's change that language together."