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Ky Judicial Commission on Mental Health is huge step forward for state

Lexington Herald-Leader - 9/2/2022

In an era of toxic partisanship and bitter political rancor, mental health has thankfully emerged as an area of true bipartisan consensus, and for that, all Kentuckians should be grateful. 2022 already saw the passage of crucial mental health legislation at the state and federal levels, including the launch of the nationwide 988 mental health crisis line — a tool that will undoubtedly save lives and offer countless individuals hope and assistance when they are at rock bottom in dire need of help.

On Aug. 11, I was honored to attend the launch of the Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health in the Supreme Court at the State Capitol in Frankfort along with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Kentucky Executive Director Melony Cunningham, and others. The establishment of this commission is a landmark accomplishment of the Kentucky Supreme Court, under the leadership of retiring Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr.

The commission will be aptly chaired by Justice Debra H. Lambert, a certified suicide prevention trainer and former Drug Court judge who has seen firsthand how mental health issues affect individuals within the justice system. Justice Lambert has already done a vast amount of work in the planning and preparation of the commission, which will hold its first meeting Sept. 22.

Kentucky’s effort is based on the revolutionary concept introduced in Texas in 2016, and few, if any other states have yet followed the model, which makes the effort here that much more laudable, and significant. The new commission will work to improve the practice, quality, and timeliness of the judiciary’s response to cases involving individuals dealing with mental health issues, substance use, and intellectual disabilities.

Membership of the commission will cover the spectrum of stakeholders in mental health policy in both the public, private, and non-profit sectors and will be comprised of a diverse group of individuals from across Kentucky.

Historically, in so many areas, the old joke was “Thank God for Mississippi and Louisiana” because they were the only states that ranked lower than Kentucky in several fields. Those days are long behind us on many fronts, but particularly with the creation of the Judicial Commission on Mental Health, Kentucky is leading the way nationally in moving forward with true vision and commitment to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness, and we can encourage other states to do the same.

As a lobbyist for NAMI Kentucky and behavioral health providers, I have seen firsthand the genuine level of commitment to tackling crucial mental health policy in the Commonwealth from both Democratic and Republican legislators. NAMI Kentucky’s mission of serving as a strong voice for individuals with mental illnesses and their families will be underscored by the organization’s participation in the Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health. As a statewide organization that works across a broad array of policy issues to advocate for effective and timely treatment to help prevent suicides, violence, homelessness, and incarceration, organizations like NAMI Kentucky play a critical role in providing a voice for the voiceless.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a committed humanitarian, and pioneering champion for mental health, has said that, “Ultimately, the way we treat people living with mental illnesses is a moral issue. To neglect those who, through no fault of their own, are in need, runs counter to our values, our decency and equality.”

Mrs. Carter is right. It is within our grasp to effectuate great change for all people with mental illnesses and to move boldly into a new era of better mental health policy in Kentucky. The creation of the Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health is a huge step forward toward that righteous goal.

T. J. Litafik is the owner/principal of Solon Strategies, LLC, a Lexington-based political strategy and governmental affairs firm.

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