TOPEKA — Nine-year-old Tristan O'Shields came to the Capitol on Thursday to advocate for mental health care. But meeting her legislator was not the highlight of her visit. Meeting Mrs. Kansas was.
"She was really nice," said Tristan of Mrs. Kansas Susana Kingsley, who happened to be in the building on the same day as Mental Health Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.
Tristan, and her mother, Patty O'Shields of Independence, were among more than 300 advocates for mental health care who came to the state Capitol to rally support among legislators for their cause them.
They credit help received from the Four County Mental Health Facility in Independence with helping Tristan to catch up to her peers in reading ability, learn to control her anger and better cope with life's challenges.
"I have three kids who receive mental health services from Four County," said Patty O'Shields. "If we lose the support, I think we'd just be lost. I don't know what I'd do without them."
They were part of Youth LINK (Leaders in Kansas) groups from across the state who met with legislators and attended a rally in Memorial Hall to promote mental health care.
Youth LINK is a student-led support group sponsored by various mental health clinics around the state. In Youth LINK, students encourage each other to stand up for themselves and to advocate for their needs.
"We are working to break down the walls of stigma related to mental health," said Rose Williams, 21, advocating on behalf of the youth of the Independence center.
"We're here to get more people to understand the need for services for our group and the programs of Four County," Williams said.
Among the issues facing the mental health community are a $10.2 million proposed cut in state aid to community mental health centers, $500,000 in proposed cuts to staff at state hospitals, and changes in Medicaid and MediKan programs.
"We told them about our needs and that we need their support. I think we did a good job. It was fun," said Zachary White, 13, the president of the student group from Independence.
The visit to the Capitol was another good experience provided by their mental health services, said Marilynn Gonzales, parent support specialist for the Four County Mental Health Center.
"They've learned to stand up for themselves, that everyone is special, everyone is equal, and to advocate for themselves," said Gonzales.
Gonzales said that students in Student LINK groups learn leadership skills, how to be good citizens, and how to serve their community.