Connecticut Mental Health Center embraces citizenship: The 2012 voter registration drive

This summer and fall, I served with nine other staff members on the non-partisan Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) Voter Registration Committee. Our task was twofold: to help members of the CMHC community register to vote if they wished to do so; and to provide them with the resources they needed—such as absentee ballots and polling place addresses—to exercise their right to vote.

Michael Rowe, PhD, co-director of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, chaired our committee. His work focuses on supporting people's membership in their communities and in society as a whole by helping them develop strong connections to what he calls the "Five Rs" of citizenship: rights, responsibilities, roles, resources, and relationships.

What does citizenship have to do with recovery?

We caught a glimpse of the connection on the inpatient unit, where Summer Willoughby, a committee member and Mental Health Assistant on the unit, helped ten of CMHC's most acute patients complete their voter registration forms.

At one of our meetings, Willoughby described a patient's reaction to receiving his voter registration confirmation card in the mail.

"He was so excited," she recalled. "He said, ‘Look what I got! Did you see this? Look!' He was showing everybody!"

Reminding us of the profound life disruptions mental illness can cause, another patient did not know if she was a United States citizen. Willoughby did the research and found she was a citizen. The woman registered and proudly voted on Election Day.

"Recovery happens in relationship to and with other people," reflects Dr. Rowe. "We are in recovery in and through our relationships with other people—family members, friends, strangers, and our fellow citizens."

Nuts & Bolts of Voter Registration

As a committee, our first task was to master the ins and outs of voter registration. We tried to think of special circumstances CMHC clients might face, and to ask questions they might ask. For example, where does a homeless person vote? What if you don't have a driver's license and don't know your social security number?

For answers, we turned to the CT Secretary of the State's office and the office of the New Haven Registrar of Voters. We hosted a visit from the non-partisan League of Women Voters. We decided the existing information wasn't entirely user-friendly, so we created our own a step-by-step guide to completing the Voter Registration form and printed this guide in English and Spanish.

The Peer Support Staff anchored the voter registration drive by assisting clients and staff Monday through Thursday, 9 AM—3 PM at the Information Desk. Peers and committee members took turns manning a special voter registration table at the CMHC Farmers' Market every Friday.

On the inpatient unit, Summer Willoughby asked each patient individually if she or he wanted to register to vote. When patients declined, she asked them again later.

"Someone could be depressed today, or someone could've had extra medications last night so they're not really interested in talking today," she explains. "It's not really fair to ask someone—in this population, in this environment—just one time and think that you have a sound steady decision."

Gradually, Willoughby's list of voters grew. Patients even watched the presidential debates and began to engage in a dialogue about the issues.

Willoughby, who has worked for CT Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services in in-patient settings for nearly seven years, says she's never see anything like this voter registration drive.

Although many inpatients leave the unit with staff for special field trips, none wished to travel to the City Clerk's office to vote in person. So Willoughby helped them apply for absentee ballots, which were mailed to them at CMHC. On Election Day, nine patients voted absentee and proudly wore their "I Voted Today" stickers alongside unit staff.

On the morning after the election, some patients were happy with the results and some were not—just like millions of other voters across the country.

In the end, CMHC helped nearly 60 people, including patients and staff, register to vote—not bad for a first Center-wide effort.

"For me," says Willoughby, "it was very satisfying to know that I can positively affect even one person."

In November 2013, New Haven residents will return to the ballot box—this time, to vote for mayor and local officials, and to issue their judgment on the City Charter. If you missed it in 2012, rest assured the CMHC Voter Registration Drive will be back.

-- Lucile Bruce, Communications Specialist, Connecticut Mental Health Center

This article was submitted by Shane Seger on November 30, 2012.

Summer Willoughby, Mental Health Assistant, led the Voter Registration Drive on the 4th floor inpatient unit.
Peer Specialists including Shumra Chambers (seated) and Deborah Jackson registered staff and clients to vote at the CMHC front desk.

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