More rally in Topeka against state cuts

TOPEKA — Randy Foster of Wichita had an ominous warning for state legislators Thursday: Restore cuts to state mental health services or deal with a stampede of untreated mentally ill people when unemployment payments run out for thousands of aircraft workers idled by the recession.

Foster has some experience with that, having descended into clinical depression and alcoholism after he lost his job as a precision sheet-metal mechanic at Boeing in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks. Since then, he's lost his wife, lived on the streets for six months and served a year in jail for DUI offenses.

"Since I've experienced it, I see all the warning signs," said Foster, 45. "All these people I know (who have been laid off recently) are already falling into the alcoholism and stuff. They don't even realize it until a certain point and when they do, the stuff they'll need to get help won't be there."

Foster spoke at a rally in Topeka, where, for the second time in as many days, people with disabilities marched on the Capitol seeking more money for community-based services.

Wearing bright red T-shirts proclaiming "We contribute, we matter," about 100 members of the Big Tent Coalition marched and rode their wheelchairs past the Statehouse in protest and then gathered in Memorial Hall across the street.

"This is hardly an aggressive message," said Mike Oxford of the disability rights group ADAPT. "Just stop cutting us."

Oxford told the group a new Harris survey commissioned by ADAPT and other advocates found that restoring services that have been cut and eliminating a waiting list of about 4,300 people would cost the individual taxpayer no more than $6.07 a year.

Thursday's demonstration followed a similar, larger, rally of disabled persons and supporters on Wednesday organized by Interhab, a statewide group advocating for persons with mental disabilities.

The Big Tent Coalition also includes the physically disabled, the frail elderly and the mentally ill.

Foster said he was mentally stable until after his layoff, when it dawned on him that he couldn't get another job that paid as much as his unemployment check.

Then, the unemployment ran out, accelerating his problems. He said his wife left him after he put a gun to his head and threatened to kill himself.

"All my dreams and everything just shattered," he said.

By the time he sought treatment, he had developed serious mental illness. He was diagnosed with adult-onset clinical depression, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said.

Medication and counseling have helped him address his problems, but state cutbacks mean he now gets fewer counseling visits.

"They expect you to make the progress you're supposed to be making with a certain number of sessions," he said. "It just doesn't work that way."

But he said his biggest concern isn't for himself.

While extended unemployment is helping to soften the mental impact of this recession's layoffs for now, the money will eventually run out and people will need treatment, he predicted.

"If they cut more, it's going to affect me, sure," he said. "But I'm more worried about what it's going to be for the future of our state and our country.

"Better to solve this a year early than five minutes late."

Rep. Dale Swenson, D-Wichita, complimented Foster for "putting a face on something a lot of (legislators) are ignoring."

Swenson has been semi-retired since he was laid off in 2005, when Boeing sold its commercial aircraft division in Wichita to what would become Spirit AeroSystems.

He said he thinks mental illness among displaced aircraft workers is "a lot more widespread than we'd like to admit."

"If we aren't careful, we could let people slip through the cracks... people who aren't afraid to work for a living but have a real hard time making ends meet."

Also among the demonstrators was Sherri Luthe, who has two teenage sons with mental illness and who works for the Mental Health Association, a nonprofit group affiliated with Sedgwick County Comcare.

She said unserved mentally ill children often wind up expelled from school and sent to juvenile justice programs or state hospitals.

"These are all very costly compared to treating them in our communities," she said.

She said her eldest son's life experience demonstrates the wisdom of providing services through community organizations.

He's 18 and has been receiving treatment since age 8 for bipolar disorder, ADHD and separation anxiety.

"Now he is a taxpaying citizen, graduating from high school and he's got a scholarship to go to Cowley County Community College," she said. "All of this because we wrapped him in services when he was young.

"Instead of group homes, we're looking at colleges."

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