Advocates for Mentally Ill Clear Barrier to Vote in This Election

By Price, Joyce Howard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 8, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Advocates for Mentally Ill Clear Barrier to Vote in This Election


Price, Joyce Howard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Thousands of Americans with mental illnesses are expected to vote in the Nov. 7 elections, many for the first time, as a result of aggressive voter registration and education efforts spearheaded by advocacy groups for the mentally ill.

"Our focus is to get out the vote. . . . Our purpose is to establish a mental illness voter bloc made up of people who care about mental illness and who vote every time," said Mike Fitzpatrick, regional director and coordinator of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's "I Vote, I Count 2000" campaign.

Mr. Fitzpatrick and others involved in such initiatives stress they are "entirely nonpartisan."

"The two major candidates both have their pluses," he said of presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore. "They have each supported things we find very favorable" for the mentally ill.

Ginny Dent, reached yesterday at the Montgomery County office On Own Own, a self-help group for the mentally ill, says efforts to increase voting by this population group are bound to help Democrats more than Republicans.

"I vote, but I don't think a lot of us do," said Ms. Dent, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. When the mentally ill do vote, she said, they tend to vote Democratic.

"A lot of us receive assistance such as SSI [Supplemental Security Income], Medicare or Medicaid, food stamps and Section 8 housing. The Democrats seem to help us more than the Republicans. I know I really want the Democrats to win," she said.

The mentally ill, who refer to themselves as "consumers of mental health services," have the potential to be a large voter constituency if they organize.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 22.1 percent of American adults 18 and older - or more than 52 million people - grapple with some type of mental disorder in any given year.

That number includes 5.6 million who suffer from continuing illness, such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"Just because you have a chronic mental illness does not mean you can't vote and function if you take your medicine and take care of yourself. . . . In fact, under treatment, you can function at a very high level and live relatively normally," said Dr. Renee Bender, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco.

Only felons and those the courts deem mentally incompetent are now prohibited from voting in all states. In 1997, by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, Maine voters rejected a repeal of the constitutional ban against voting by people judged by law to be mentally incompetent.

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Advocates for Mentally Ill Clear Barrier to Vote in This Election
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