State Beat: Profile: Sheila Schuster, PhD

From “Tim’s Law” to the Affordable Care Act, Schuster is an advocacy powerhouse in Kentucky.

By Hannah Calkins

Sheila Schuster, PhDPsychologist, longtime legislative advocate and “KPA legend” Sheila Schuster, PhD, spent many years in the viewing galleries of the Kentucky General Assembly, stifling her impulse to leap up and cheer when legislation she worked on passed. But on March 29, when the assembly overrode the governor’s unexpected veto of a bill she’d poured her heart into, Schuster and her fellow advocates disregarded the rules and erupted into celebration. “That’s normally not allowed, but in this case they let us cheer,” Schuster recalled.

The bill, called “Tim’s Law,” will allow Kentucky judges to order outpatient treatment for people who are severely mentally ill and meet strict criteria. It’s meant to help these individuals break cycles of homelessness, jail and involuntary hospitalization, Schuster explained.

Schuster, who has been a full-time mental health advocate for the better part of the last two decades, is still enjoying this success — but certainly isn’t stopping now. In fact, she is clear-eyed about what she views as the “waxing and waning” nature of advocacy.

“You have a victory, and then you see it get whittled away over time,” she said. “You have these rare wins, and then you have to fight like heck to defend them.”

For now, that means ensuring that Tim’s Law is fully funded, and continuing to educate new advocates in the trainings she conducts every year. 

“Psychologists have such a skill set for advocacy and relationships, in terms of seeing the big picture,” she said. 

Schuster worked as a child psychologist in Louisville for more than 25 years before closing her practice to pursue advocacy full time. Since then, she has helped develop and lead multiple organizations, advocacy groups and coalitions, including Advocacy Action Network, Kentucky Voices for Health and the Kentucky Psychological Association (KPA), where she has held every leadership position.

Schuster’s compassionate and focused tenacity has earned her the respect and admiration of colleagues. Laurie Grimes, PhD, KPA’s director of professional affairs, called her a “KPA legend” and praised Schuster for her collaborative nature, persistence and wisdom.

“Kentucky psychologists would be hard-pressed to find a colleague whose work has left as indelible a mark on the landscape of mental health services and policy in our state as Schuster’s,” Grimes said.

Accordingly, the passage of Tim’s Law is just the latest in a long resume of advocacy successes and causes. Grimes cited Schuster’s hand in many successful efforts on behalf of Kentuckians, including: autism treatment mandates; protection from the death penalty for the severely mentally ill; mental health parity; health reform and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Schuster has also been a leading voice on issues such as rural health care, domestic violence, tax reform and public school multicultural assessment.

Grimes said that Schuster is a clinician at heart whose “gift for advocacy is grounded in her belief in the power of personal relationships” and her ability to facilitate negotiations around complicated and controversial issues.

One of those issues is protecting master’s-level psychologists’ ability to practice. This sometimes puts her at odds with APA, which supports access to quality mental health professionals but maintains that the doctorate is the entry-level degree for the independent practice of psychology.

“In a rural state like Kentucky, it’s an access issue. I’d rather have patients seeing someone with psychological training than another mental health professional,” she explained. “For me, advocacy is about mental health, broadly. If something is good for all people, it’s good for psychologists.”

That ethos will guide her as she continues her work, from which she planned to retire three or four years ago, she said. KPA even threw her a big party and (“gently”) roasted her. But she didn’t feel ready to retire just yet, she said, and she still doesn’t.

“It feels like so many of the things I’ve worked to create are being attacked and undermined,” she said. “It’s not a good time to walk away.”

Still, she’s heartened by the groundswell of political energy and goodwill she’s observed. For example, attendance at her most recent advocacy training was double the usual number, and they had to cap enrollment, she said.

“It’s a really positive sign. People want to know what they can do, and I’m helping them to be more effective,” she said. “I’m always encouraging psychologists to get involved. I think people don’t understand how much influence they could have if they just spoke up.”