Schuster wins top health policy advocacy award for more than 40 years of work in mental health; calls for an end to stigma around it

Left to right: Mark Carter, Sheila Schuster, Ben Chandler, LeChrista Finn

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Sheila Schuster, who has spent more than four decades advocating for those with mental illness and other disabilities, and worked to increase access to health care across Kentucky, was named the first Gil Friedell Health Policy Champion to a standing ovation by an audience from all over Kentucky.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky award was presented at the organization’s annual policy forum in Lexington Sept. 23, exactly one year after the death of Friedell, who was a fierce advocate for health equity and finding community-based solutions to the many health issues that plague Kentucky.

“This award is a tremendous honor. I treasure it even more because it is named for Gil Friedell, a mentor, friend and role model,” Schuster said with great emotion. “Gil’s legacy of health advocacy inspires me every day to do all I can to improve the lives of my fellow Kentuckians.”

Schuster, a psychologist and mental-health advocate, selected Mental Health America of Kentucky to get the $5,000 cash grant that came with the award. She said she chose MHA because it was the oldest mental-health advocacy organization in the state and because it had partnered with her organization, the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, on numerous policy initiatives.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a news release, “Sheila is passionate about improving mental health, she is passionate about ensuring access to health care, and she is passionate about going about her work in a way that garners both respect and results.”

Schuster was chosen from this year’s 10 Healthy Kentucky Policy Champion recipients, Kentucky individuals or organizations recognized by the foundation for their engagement in improving the health of people in their communities and/or the entire state through policy change.

Sheila Schuster accepts Friedell award

In addition to leading the Advocacy Action Network, an umbrella organization that includes groups addressing health care, mental health, social justice and disability issues, Schuster also chairs Kentucky Voices for Health, a coalition to improve Kentucky’s health, and leads the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, which comprises more than 80 organizations. She chairs the Behavioral Health Technical Advisory Committee of Kentucky’s Medicaid program. She has also held numerous leadership positions, including president and executive director, with the Kentucky Psychological Association.

“I love the policy work that I’ve done over the past 40 plus years,” she said. “And to get an award for doing it is like icing on the cake.”

And not to let an opportunity pass, Schuster spoke about the challenges of stigma when it comes to mental health and encouraged the 360 people in the room to do their part to reduce it.

“And while I have the mic, I’d like to close by urging each of you to do whatever you can to reduce the stigma that envelops mental illness, making it so difficult for our people to seek the help they need and to feel OK about it,” she said.

“Stigma causes us to fear and isolate individuals with mental illness, to unfairly blame them for mass shootings when they are 10 times more likely to the the victim of violence than to be its perpetrator. Think about your language, examine your attitudes and do something positive to support those who are struggling with mental health issues. Never underestimate what a kind gesture, an understanding word or a listening ear can do to tear down that stigma.”

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