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Major funders commission review of mental health care in the county

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of February 20, 2014)

With resources for mental healthcare in Indian River County steadily diminishing, major funders are taking bold steps to ensure that what’s available goes to the right place and that the community pulls together to help people with mental illness in ways that don’t have a price tag.

To that end, the funders – the McCabe Foundation, the United Way, the Hospital District, the Sheriff’s Office and the Indian River Medical Center – have authorized the hiring of Pennsylvania mental health consultant Michael Felix to work with Mental Health Collaborative chief Lisa Kahle in a top-to-bottom review of mental health care in the county.

The Mental Health Collaborative is a consortium of about 25 organizations in the county concerned with mental health issues. Its members range from the major funders to county and city officials and school district leaders to mental health administrators.

This past week, Felix and Kahle met with everyone from psychiatrists to social workers to mental health patients and their families to get a handle on what the future direction should be in order to fill the gaps in mental healthcare in the community.

Last Tuesday night was particularly poignant with Felix and Kahle meeting with patients and the families of patients at a conference room in the United Way offices. Also at the meeting were volunteers from the county branch of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Among those who spoke: the parents of a schizophrenic young man who committed  suicide, a bi-polar nurse, the mother of an adult son with schizophrenia, the sister of a bi-polar alcoholic and the mother of a bi-polar child with mild autism. 

The gaps they talked about in the delivery of mental health services in the county were varied and wide.

They told Felix that sometimes it took three to four months to see a psychiatrist. When a mentally ill inmate is released from jail, they said, no one makes sure the person gets needed meds or an appointment at a mental health facility. The jail needs a mental health coordinator, they said.

When a person in crisis goes to the Indian River Medical Center emergency room on a crowded night, secure space is often unavailable and the person disrupts the waiting room. The hospital needs more space for mentally ill people in crisis, they suggested.

A mother related how her son had been tasered at the hospital, and said security guards there need to be better trained in crisis intervention.

The mother of a preadolescent, who is bi-polar and mildly autistic, said the school system is focused on the autism, “but she gets very little help with the mental illness.” School staffs need to be more focused on mental illness, she said.

Also, she said, very little support is offered in the county for youths under 18 with psychiatric disorders.

The group talked about dual diagnosis and how substance abuse frequently accompanies mental illness. But, they said, it was not common to have both problems treated.

 A mother blurted out: “My son says, it feels like he has knives in his head, and I want him to have a support group of peers who know what that feels like.”

Another mother told about “a wonderful, free Monday night program” called “Family to Family” for the families of mentally ill people at First Presbyterian Church, coordinated by NAMI. But, she agreed that there was not enough organized peer support for patients.  

Another participant said Vero also needs group homes.

Those at the meeting debated whether people with mental illness should be open about it because of the stigma.

The bi-polar nurse said she used to keep her mental illness a secret for fear of losing her job, but after years of functioning well on medication, she said she has become open about it.

“If I can help someone else who is bi-polar by freely admitting it, I want to,” she said.

But others worried aloud that being open about mental illness could cause the patient to be branded and often excluded.

Then the discussion turned to recovery – people who functioned well on medication, like the nurse.

The county needs job training for these people, they all said. Also school programs.

While consultant Felix asked and answered questions, the collaborative’s Kahle wrote down summaries in topic form. At the end of the night there were long lists of suggestions that would go into planning a better mental health delivery service for the county.

Over the next few days, Kahle and Felix visited mental health and substance abuse programs – among them, the Mental Health Association, Treasure Coast Community Health, New Horizons, Legacy and Suncoast – to help Felix get a fuller picture of what the county offered and needed.

In early March, Felix will present a plan to funders and they’ll go from there.

“I’m so thankful we have the Mental Health Collaborative pulling us together and pushing us forward, with a vision of where we need to go,” said NAMI president Valerie Smith.  

Tuesday night’s meeting ended with Felix telling everyone there that he was the child of alcoholics and started Alanon in the northeast when he was 16. 

His resume says he has been a community mental health development specialist for over 40 years and travels around the country helping towns like Vero Beach improve mental health services.

“We can do this together,” he assured everyone at the close of the meeting.

To learn more about NAMI”s free programs, call 772-532-5554.