Editor’s Note: Prior to the start of the 2020 legislative session, State Rep. Amy Walen (Kirkland) held a series of community listening sessions on improving behavioral health services in Washington state. EEN student intern Kellen Hoard attended one of them and reports on that experience in his post below.
I arrived at The Woods coffee shop in Bellevue on a December Wednesday without knowing what to expect. I had met with plenty of legislators before in a variety of settings, but I was not exactly certain what meeting with State Rep. Amy Walen from the 48th legislative district would entail. This was the last of six community sessions she had held, and this one was happening in the middle of the week, at night in the pouring rain right before the holiday season. I imagined most people would be inclined in that situation to relax comfortably at home. So, I wondered two main things as I entered: would other constituents show up at this forum dedicated to mental health? And how would Rep. Walen engage participants in this sensitive yet crucial topic?
From the moment I walked into the sectioned-off portion of the shop in which Rep. Walen was sitting, the latter question was answered. Looking up from her work, she was immediately warm and attentive. As I was the first to arrive, she and I spent some time conversing about non-legislative topics: my school, her family, and the like. Several minutes later, Beth Sigall, education advocate and founder of Eastside Education Network showed up. The discussion among the three of us quickly turned to a number of topics that intersect with mental and behavioral health, including autism, foster children, and mental health issues facing high school students. Throughout the next half an hour or so, the dynamic of conversation took shape. Ms. Sigall would share an issue of concern and discuss it, Rep. Walen would listen closely and ask insightful follow-up questions, and I would contribute my perspective as a student. Rep. Walen also shared stories – both personal and ones from her constituents – about the mental health challenges faced by so many in our community.
Part way through, another woman showed up who was a pediatrician. She specifically worked within the field of eating disorders. It was a subject on which I knew a little, but not nearly as much as I wanted to. What the doctor shared in her time speaking grew my knowledge considerably, and it was apparent the other two in attendance learned something as well.
In my view, experiences like these at forums are one of the primary reasons to attend. It is important to talk with your legislator, as was the point of this event, but hearing the perspectives of the other attendees—especially those who are knowledgeable in their subject area —is enlightening. Rep. Walen expressed a similar view herself.
The doctor left before the forum finished, but Ms. Sigall and I continued to share our experiences and to ask our questions until it concluded. We learned that the legislature is expected to try and address a variety of issues related to mental health in this upcoming session. As it is a short session, the absence of a budget debate may help open the way for the passage of some important legislation, but that is yet to be seen. I am hopeful, though. It seems mental health issues are finally starting to get some of the attention they deserve at the school, local, state, and federal level. The 2020 Washington state legislative session – which kicked off this week – would be an excellent time to make some progress. While the attendance at this particular forum was small, those I have met in all settings have been people with focus and motivated concern.
If you are passionate about a certain category of mental health, I highly encourage you to keep track of bills being introduced into the legislature this year regarding it. If you see a piece of legislation you like, advocate for it. You can email your representatives at any time, and if you feel especially strongly it is possible to testify on its behalf in committee hearings. Events like this one are also excellent places to share your thoughts with elected leaders; I have found many are quite receptive, and this is a bipartisan issue. Mental health is a prevalent problem in society today, and opportunities such as this event and others like it are a great way for you to be part of the solution.