Participants in a recent mental health panel at Rasmussen College in Land O’ Lakes didn’t have any easy solutions for problems plaguing the delivery of mental health care to the nation’s most vulnerable people.
But they did point out several areas where changes could be made to help improve the level of care for those with mental health conditions, and to improve support for their families and loved ones.
The panel, convened by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, focused on mental health and substance abuse issues. It featured U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a clinical psychologist and author of H.B. 3717, otherwise known as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.
Bilirakis is among the co-signers on Murphy’s bill.
Too often people have thrown some money at the mental health care problem, added a program, and then walked away without making any real difference, Murphy told a crowd of about 100.
“We have to stop pretending that we can just wish this away,” Murphy said.
Like Murphy, Bilirakis said the time has come to find real solutions. The Palm Harbor Republican has learned from constituents that “we have a broken system with too many individuals falling through the cracks and not receiving the help that they need.
“We put a Band-Aid on it, but we don’t fix it,” Bilirakis said. “Enough is enough.”
Murphy said he’s heard from thousands of families across America, and their constant refrain is that there’s not enough help for people who are mentally ill. Under the current system, mentally ill people often can’t get help they need unless they go to jail.
“On any given day, half-a-million people in this nation are in jail with a mental illness,” Murphy said.
The problems of mental illness spill into other arenas, too, he added. The nation’s homeless population continues to swell, its suicide rates have increased, and many people with mental conditions have little or no prospect of work.
Panelists at the Dec. 16 session represented high-ranking officials from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office, Operation PAR, Baycare Behavioral Health, Medical Center of Trinity, the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, the Pinellas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Pasco County Schools, the Trinity Pain Center and an advocate representing veterans needing mental health care.
Themes that emerged during the discussion included the need for:
- Better hand-offs between various providers to ensure a continuum of care for people with mental health conditions
- Short-term residential treatment centers to provide greater support for the mentally ill
- Additional crisis intervention team training to help police and first responders better assist people with mental conditions
- Help teach school district employees how to identify symptoms that may indicate mental illness in its earliest stages
- Less bureaucracy in the way programs are administered and funded, so that people can be receive treatment when and where they need it
- Additional research to find effective ways to treat mental conditions
- Increased support to help families coping with the challenges posed by a family member’s mental condition
Some panelists pointed out specific areas that need reform. Pasco County sheriff Chris Nocco, for example, believes changes are needed in the state’s Baker Act, which governs how long a person can be detained for a mental evaluation. The current maximum is 72 hours.
That, Nocco said, “is not long enough,” likening it to putting a bandage on a gushing wound.
Murphy agreed with that assessment.
“Who came up with 72 hours for mental illness?” he said, adding that the time limit “doesn’t make clinical sense.”
Medical Center of Trinity chief executive Leigh Massengill said she finds it shameful that, for many patients, the first introduction to the hospital’s behavioral care unit often is by virtue of the Baker Act.
One of the biggest frustrations is the lack of hand-offs in the community after these patients have been stabilized and released from the hospital’s behavioral care facility, Massengill said.
“That absolutely guarantees that they’re going to come back to us, or come back to somebody else, or wind up dead,” she said. “That’s unconscionable in my mind, in this day and time.”
Saybra Chapman, clinical coordinator for Pasco County Schools, noted that a primary issue that keeps surfacing is access to care and timely care.
“The problem for us is when students are waiting for care and not able to get ready services,” she said. “They are trying to function in the school setting, which is a challenge for everybody.”
While panelists discussed the gaps in services and funding issues, Roy Gifford reminded them hope remains for people with mental conditions. The 38-year-old has suffered from schizoaffective disorder for most of his life.
“I have been on almost every kind of medication possible since childhood,” Gifford said.
He’s lived in assisted living facilities, foster care homes, jails, and on the street.
“I often thought there was no hope for me,” Gifford said, acknowledging it was so bad at some points he tried to end his life.
He’s on a new medication now, and has accepted the fact he likely will be on medication the rest of his life.
“Remember, there is hope and recovery,” Gifford told those gathered. “I know it can be done. I am living proof.”
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