Mental Health Month, Disgraceful State And National Neglect, And Local Efforts

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By Tom Walker, National Alliance of Mental Health

January is Mental Health Month. Accordingly, it is appropriate that we turn our attention this month to the truly dismal way persons with mental illnesses are treated in this country and to the efforts made by both our region’s grossly under funded mental health system and by the Athens Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to alleviate the impact of a State and National disgrace.

Yes, disgrace! Though, like any other developed country, the United States has cutting edge medications and therapies which could help most of folks with mental illness recover, a majority of the severely mentally ill (SMI) in this country receive no care whatsoever. On average, the SMI live 25 to 30 years less than the rest of us. Many are homeless. Three times as many SMI are being “cared for” in our country’s jails and prisons than in our few remaining mental hospitals. In Ohio, the ratio is four to one! The Los Angeles County Jail and the Cook County, Illinois Jail are this country’s two largest institution “care givers” to the mentally ill.

This is what the high quality professionals in our regional public mental health system struggle with on a daily basis. Our tiny local mental hospital, Appalachian Behavioral Health Care, is faced with the cruel reality of not having enough space to keep people in crisis for more than an average of about ten days – in spite of the fact that it can take up to six weeks for people to successfully transition onto a good medication. Once the patient is released, s/he may not be able to find housing. And if s/he does not have public or private insurance s/he may not have access to continuing care in our good but financially strapped outpatient facility, Hopewell Health.

Faced with this stark reality, private organizations and entities must try to fill the gaps. Fortunately the Athens 317 Board, which administers public funds for mental health services, spends some of its scarce resources to supplement the revenue such entities. Some 317 money goes to the Gathering Place and the Athens Photographic Project. These provide the SMI with a welcoming drop-in center and an opportunity for creative activity.  

The Athens Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), too, is very grateful for the money it gets from the 317 Board – principally for the salary of our able Office Manager, Lori Kinney. With that, our annual fund drive, grants, donations, individual participation in the Kroger Rewards Program, and even in lieu of flowers memorials, NAMI Manages to do a lot. We offer twice monthly Support Group, free evening course for parents of youngsters with mental illnesses, persons with adult loved ones with mental illness, and persons in recovery from mental illness. We also play a central role in planning and running week-long Crisis Intervention Team training of regional police on how to recognize persons in mental health crises, de-escalate, and take them to help rather than jail them. We and the Athens County Library co-sponsor a mental health Lecture Series with four or five speakers annually. In addition, we have overseen a $100,000 plus community effort to restore, beautify, and demystify the three old mental hospital cemeteries on the Ridges. And, annually, we do a dozen or more segments on mental illness for WOUB’s “Conversations from Studio B.” Since these are archived on our website at this link, and available via podcast, they have not only a local but also an international audience.

So, both public and private entities here in Athens are cooperating with each other and doing their best to make up for this country and state’s shameful treatment of those who suffer from mental illness. But it sure would be nice if large segments of the American people and their representatives would stop whimpering and whining about modest attempts to improve health care as “encroaching socialism/communism.”