SPECIAL COVERAGE: For those facing mental health challenges, voting presents unique obstacles

By Mackenzie Merson
Special to the Southeast Express

Many Americans live daily with the struggle of mental health, and a vast majority of people without mental illnesses don’t realize how many obstacles can stand in would-be voters’ way.

Voting is a normality among Americans. However, a study published in the October 2018 digital edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that citizens with mental illness or cognitive and emotional impairments are especially subject to exclusion from the political process and to disenfranchisement.

In the study, the authors wrote that, “Voting is a fundamental right and part of the foundation of our democracy.” So much so, they noted, that four constitutional amendments spell out that voting can not be denied based on race, gender, ability to pay a poll tax or age.

For all of the protections those amendments offer, none specifically grants the right to vote to those with mental illness or cognitive and emotional impairments, the authors said.

“Misunderstanding and ignorance of voting laws can put this population at risk of being barred from fully joining the fabric of our society by being excluded from the democratic process,” they wrote. “In other words, these citizens are excluded from the full rights of citizenship.”

But one local mental health advocate said working with these adults and motivating them to get involved can move us toward a more-inclusive voter turnout.

“Meeting with a support group can be the first step to doing more,” said Tamara Cannafax.

Cannafax is marketing project manager at Pikes Peak Community College and a volunteer connection support group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. The alliance is a nonprofit that specializes in mental health resourcing and maintains a branch in Colorado Springs. Cannafax was honored for her work as one of the group’s two volunteers of the year in 2019.

Support, she said, could help citizens struggling with mental illness connect with the voting process. She suggested not only support groups, but help from peers as well.

Ambition is also an obstacle, she said, such as ambition to register, ambition to learn or the ambition of getting out to actually perform the act of voting. Looking to help people find the ambition comes with the process of recovery.

Because in the end, recovering is a ladder for “opening their mind,” Cannafax said. If someone can make voting a goal at the top of their ladder, then they can aspire to it.


Resources available

The following are some of the resources available for voters with disabilities or who are struggling with mental health or cognitive challenges:



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