Community Conversation: Mental Health Issues

Do persons with disabilities commit violent acts? Can persons with mental health issues be productive citizens with satisfying lifestyles? What are some action steps toward a better mental health support system? These and other questions were presented and discussed as part of a U.S. national dialogue in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 21, 2013. Over 300 people gave up their Saturday to participate. 

Mental Health is a Co-Existing Condition for Many Persons with Disabilities

Mental health issues are a central issue in our society, and young adults isolated by technology are the most vulnerable. Individuals in this age group tend to be those who are experiencing increased independence from their family at the same time that mental health issues can arise. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24, higher than car accidents. We need to pay attention and provide supports that reach them in real time and in a more natural manner by addressing the barriers in accessing services.

In addition to the age factor, Smart Steps provides supports to individuals with cognitive disabilities, a category that encompasses a range of disabilities: intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, autism, brain injury, and perhaps aging issues. Many of these individuals experience more than one cognitive disability; it is not unusual for someone with autism, for example, to experience high levels of anxiety or depression. They have an increased chance of having a secondary mental health issue than the general population.

The Community Dialogue as an Empowering, Inclusive Experience 

The dialogue itself was a unique experience. With my teacher lens, I noted carefully-planned, multiple modalities, differentiated activities and individualized accommodations to meet participants’ needs. Upon check-in, we were assigned to a table: no worries or fretting about where to sit. At each table, a facilitator greeted us and provided a clicker to allow each of us to have a voice in this large group dialogue.

Naturally, speaking about personal mental health issues could bring up emotions and a need to express. For those who preferred to draw or write, a mural was available in the back of the room. A separate quiet room was also available with counselors available. Stretch breaks and poetry presentations on mental health and homelessness provided needed variety to the day. A lot of thought was put into making this a positive experience.

To get the day started, we were greeted by Mayor Sly James (Kansas City, Missouri) and Mayor Mark Holland (Kansas City, Kansas). The mayors of Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas could be competitors, each trying to attract companies to their small-but-big-town that sprawls on either side of the state line. In actuality, they seem to be good friends and work together to promote projects to improve their respective cities, Google Fiber being one of the most recent and impactful in terms of encouraging entrepreneurship and internet accessibility. These two forward-thinking mayors collaborated once again to sponsor this dialogue.

Facts about Mental Health

Led by, presenters provided statistical information about mental health. In addition, Kathleen Sebelius made an appearance. As a former Kansas governor, she was returning home to provide encouragement and promise of better health care. To provide some background for discussion, some of the major points made were as follows:

  1. Mental health issues affect 1 in 5 adults each year.
  2. Twenty percent of insurance plans do not cover mental health.
  3. Medicaid dollars are available for each state to cover mental health through Medicaid expansion plans.
  4. Three hundred million days of work are lost due to mental health issues.
  5. Only 3-5% of violent crime is committed by persons with mental illness. This fact is particularly sensitive given the seemingly-increasing news reports about mass shootings.
  6.  Persons with mental health issues can get better with relevant treatment and support.

The Group Has Spoken

Small group discussions at a relaxed, but focused pace, made up the crux of the day. At each table, a recorder forwarded ideas and thoughts via an iPad to the data table for real-time summarizing. This process allowed the data group to quickly summarize results and share them back with the whole group. The entire room then prioritized themes by voting with our handy clickers.

So enough about the experience; what were the outcomes of this dialogue in Kansas City?

Through the skilled use of technology, we were provided the voting results almost immediately. In Kansas City, priorities are:

  • • Reducing the stigma of mental illness
  • • Poverty and mental illness
  • • Fragmentation of services
  • • Trauma and toxic stress
  • • Substance abuse and mental health

The process included more than describing the problems; we also brainstormed strategies. Strategies proposed for youth (ages 12-17)  were:

  • • K-12 curriculum on mental health awareness/skills
  • • Mental health screenings and first aid in schools

Strategies proposed for young adults (ages 18-24) were:

  • • Develop support networks with positive peer models/mentors
  • • Life readiness training (conflict resolution, budgeting, relationships, parenting skills) Here’s an article from Cleverism to check out which lists simple exercises to increasing mental strength: 8 Proven Exercises That Boost Your Mental Strength

Individual Positive Actions

Each person was invited to arrive at a positive action they would take moving forward from this dialogue, and a representative from each table announced his or her intention to the whole room. Actions ranged from intending to make a difference in the lives of one homeless person, continuing the dialogue with fellow counseling students, presenting information to other self-advocates, and for myself, writing a blog about my experience and inviting other participants to share it as a way of increasing awareness.


It was inspirational to take part in a dialogue with people from various points of view, to meet people who have firsthand knowledge and experiences of the problems in our system, and to experience the sense of optimism and camaraderie generated by the applause following each person’s positive action statement.

Will all of the positive actions work? Maybe, maybe not.  As an educator, I would point out that society tends to look at schools to solve all of society’s problems. There’s only so much that children can absorb, and only so many priorities that schools can manage. Other entities can provide awareness and education, such as public libraries, community colleges and universities, and community centers.

We look forward to future reports by the action team. It’s time to upgrade our support system by taking advantage of the ways that technology can make supports more efficient, to provide authentic and engaging ways of providing support, and to care about our neighbors enough to work in a bipartisan fashion. It’s time for reorganization, updating, and efficient but authentic supports that will assist individuals to have more productive and enjoyable lives.

For free community dialogue resources, see:

For free exercises from Cleverism, see:8 Proven Exercises That Boost Your Mental Strength

(c) 2018 Smart Steps LLC