When Lynn Kohr arrived at her Petco job one day, she advised her boss that she was having problems with the voices in her head. He suggested she work in the back room rather than with customers.
Just another day in the life of a Kansan coping with mental health illnesses, including schizoaffective disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
Kohr’s battles began decades ago, when the stress of intensive internships near the end of college triggered a likely predisposition to mental illness. She developed PTSD after being abused in a group home.
But with the help of medications, Kohr manages her illness about 90 percent of the time. To get through the other 10 percent, she’s got a trusted friend, a job with colleagues who support her, and assistance from Sedgwick County Comcare and the privately funded National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Kohr is lucky: She qualified for Social Security disability assistance back in 1986. Now, she notes, with state financing severely stretched, it’s hard – especially for a single, childless adult – to meet today’s more restrictive criteria.
Sixty years ago, state hospitals – many having devolved into mental health “warehouses” – began closing. Their funding, earmarked to be rerouted into community resources, simply evaporated. Today, those warehouses essentially been replaced by jails. The two chronically overcrowded state hospitals that do remain (described by some as little better than jails themselves) can’t accommodate all Kansans desperately needing their help.
Fifteen years ago, Wichita’s Breakthrough Club, which placed paid staff members alongside volunteers with mental illness, provided an array of vocational and educational support, from training clients for specific jobs (saving employers those costs) to offering scholarships. Today, its services have been severely downsized. Kansans battling bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia or addiction walk, typically, into a revolving door from the police to the emergency room to jail to court to home – or the streets – where the cycle begins again.
Illness strikes anyone, regardless of income. But people with mental illness also suffer social stigma, high unemployment, and weak or nonexistent support networks.
Next Wednesday, Kansans will gather inside Topeka’s Capitol Building. We will urge a 2017 agenda focused on issues of vital importance to Kansans. Along with health care access, they include racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, equitable public education, LBGTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) rights, voting rights, responsible gun policy, immigrant rights, gender equity, criminal justice reform, infrastructure investment, child protection, anti-corruption reform, and religious freedom.
The statewide Kansas People’s Agenda is based on the Moral Mondays movement, led by North Carolina minister William J. Barber II. It reclaims “morality” from politicians enacting legislation that is anything but moral.
Anne Welsbacher is a Wichita writer and editor.