Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman presents a lifetime achievement award from NAMI Kentucky to Louisville psychologist and longtime advocate Dr. Sheila Schuster at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Anna Latek | State Journal)
Advocates for mental health patients across Kentucky were the focus of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Kentucky’s rally Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda.
Former Kentucky state Sen. Alice Forgy-Kerr, a longtime supporter of mental health causes in the General Assembly, was presented with an award from NAMI Kentucky by Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, as was Dr. Sheila Schuster, faculty member at the University of Louisville, longtime practicing psychologist and legislative liaison for the Kentucky Psychological Association.
Forgy-Kerr, who retired from the legislature in December, told attendees that “one of the first things I was involved in 24 years ago was getting more funding for Eastern State Hospital. And I am so thankful that we were able to work together to build them a beautiful facility.
“One of the last pieces of legislation I worked on that I did not have any success with except to bring it to the forefront across the United States was to ban conversion therapy,” she continued. “It is my prayer that all of you will continue to work on getting rid of this horrendous torture. It is not therapy, it is torture.”
Schuster, who in 1978 began lobbying for legislation that would eventually require insurance companies in Kentucky to cover mental health care, said, “I swore that I would not let those guys in blue suits cut off treatment for people with mental illness. We were able to protect mental health parity in Kentucky before the rest of the nation.
“In some ways, this is not about the legislators — they are going to listen to the noise out there. They need to hear from you as constituents. There is a terrible bill in this legislature — House Bill 470,” she continued. “That would deny any health care for any kid that is transgender. This is absolutely wrong, and we, as NAMI and as mental health professionals, need to stand up to this legislation.
“If they deny health treatment and consultation to these families, and these children who are so at risk, we will have more suicides. More depression. More anxiety. And we will not stand for that as mental health advocates.”
Coleman spoke on the Student Mental Health Initiative, led by efforts from her office and a group of Kentucky students, which will help districts, administrators, teachers and parents better learn how to address the mental health concerns of youth.
“This is a gigantic challenge that all of us are dealing with in one way or another,” she said. “We have really included students, elevated their voices, and worked to listen to them as they work through the challenges they are facing with mental health.”
“Monday was the three-year anniversary of the first COVID case in Kentucky, and in particular, this had a huge impact on our young people. They were losing family members, isolated from their friends, teachers, coaches, and this exacerbated a trend we were seeing across Kentucky. I know this, because I am a teacher.”
Coleman shared statistics from a CDC study that revealed that one out of every five American children had a mental disorder, ranging from anxiety to depression to substance abuse, and that only 20% of that population was actively receiving treatment from a licensed medical professional for their problem. 15% of Kentucky high schoolers reported serious consideration of suicide.
Social and family stigma, lack of understanding, and inability to access care were three of the biggest issues for students, so the initiative seeks to have peer involvement lead to more understanding of and access to mental health care.
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