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Guest column

Mental health workers need democracy now

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Jean Curtiss veterans ceremony

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss gets choked up as she shares her family's history of military service with the crowd.

Many of them have come to us homeless. Others have just been released from the state mental health hospital or the local jail. They are frequently overwhelmed with despair and loss. They don’t have enough to eat. Voices forbid from going to the store for food. Their angst leaves them deeply suspicious of being in the community.

We work as a team, the case managers, the community rehabilitation aides and the clients of the Western Montana Mental Health Center, to turn this around. We hold hands in the emergency rooms. We search for housing. We find secondhand sofas. We schedule the first doctor’s appointment in what may be five or 10 years. We make a plan to to get out of bed every day. We gain skills to silence our demons. We discover we can shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. We learn to go for walks. Then sometimes we fall down, and we start all over again.

Nobody chooses to work with persons struggling with severely disabling mental illnesses to get rich. But mental health case managers and rehab aides want to, need to, make a living wage. Most of us have college degrees, several of us have master's degrees. Yet our children are on Medicaid, some of us need Section 8 vouchers in order to pay our rent, and many of us are forced to pick up boxes at the food bank in order to feed our families.

We want to be treated with respect and dignity in our places of employment. That is why we voted on Sept. 20 to form a mental health workers' union. We have two goals that go hand in hand: the just and compassionate treatment of our clients, and the just and compassionate treatment of mental health employees.

On several occasions the mental health workers of Unite Here Local 23 have requested an audience with Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who also serves as president of the board of directors of the Western Montana Mental Health Center. On every occasion she has refused, with a resounding "no" to democratic process. Do not elected officials represent the working class? We have been led to question if Curtiss is the most fit and qualified candidate to represent the workers of Missoula County.

We are currently facing severe state Medicaid cuts. We could shortly be unemployed. If this happens, the population at the Poverello Center, the population at the State Hospital, the prison population, and the population of the homeless camps under the bridges will increase. Some of the most vulnerable persons in society will be unable to seek help, and their helpers will be left to collect unemployment.

We implore you to support the care and treatment of persons suffering from disabling illness, as well as the just treatment of mental health workers throughout the country. Be kind and offer a smile the next time you pass a homeless person on the sidewalk. Think carefully about who you want to be your next county commissioner. And be a voice for democracy and a living wage for all persons who work hard daily to meet the needs of the most at-risk of society’s members.

Cheryl Nguyen-Wishneski and Lisa Leon are Unite Here Local 23 shop stewards.

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