A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

James Dahmann: We need more ‘squeaky wheels’ in support of mental health services, adequate funding

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While nationally there appears to be more awareness and open discussion concerning mental health, for the last 20 years public sector funding for mental health services in Kentucky have stagnated — at best — or declined. Where public policy and public resources for mental health services have failed, a bright spot appeared when SUN Behavioral Health opened its new 197-bed psychiatric hospital in Northern Kentucky. The opening of this facility was long awaited and highly anticipated, as evidenced by the well-attended ribbon cutting ceremony in late February.

We applaud SUN for its collaboration with NorthKey Community Care, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and NAMI Northern Kentucky as it made this investment in mental health treatment for Northern Kentucky.

SUN held community forums to explain its mission, gather community input, and address community concerns. When law enforcement and EMT first responders expressed concerns, SUN convened a special meeting with them to better understand and respond. The response to this outreach by SUN has been favorable — individuals, community groups, and first responders felt they were heard and their concerns were being addressed.

We as a community cannot thank SUN enough for taking the risk of making the financial investment and making the effort to build this incredible facility to help address the mental health needs of Northern Kentucky.

Among the invited speakers at the ribbon cutting was one of the NAMI Northern Kentucky’s board members, Mike Schafer. He spoke eloquently of his now deceased son’s battle with schizophrenia that began when he was in college. He addressed the isolation, loneliness, and lack of support for family members attempting to assist their loved ones in that battle.

He said, “I know all too well the feeling of surely this isn’t happening as your loved one’s behavior becomes inexplicably more and more bizarre and embarrassing, and the growing horror of realizing that your loved one is slipping away from you right in front of your eyes and you don’t know what to do or where to turn. You do know where to turn if you have heart disease or cancer, as horrible as those illnesses are.

“But mental health resources are in short supply. And the stigma associated with mental illness makes it very hard to talk about. You frequently feel like you are all alone in a nightmare. This is why this hospital is so critically important for Northern Kentucky. First and foremost, it will give people a place to go for help. It will hopefully attract the mental health talent and resources that our community so desperately needs. And, through educational programs and by its very presence, over time this hospital will help reduce the stigma that keeps people from seeking the treatment they need.”

Wise words, indeed. Unfortunately, such insight appears to have been lost on our government officials. The primary message of the Kentucky state representatives at the SUN ribbon cutting ceremony was not mental health treatment, but the heroin epidemic. They expounded upon everything they are doing to combat the heroin epidemic. Very little if anything was said about mental illness.

We acknowledge that the heroin epidemic is a serious medical and social issue. However, without a realization and understanding that untreated mental health issues underlying many peoples’ substance abuse problem must be addressed, we will never solve the heroin problem. Why did these officials not acknowledge that state funding for mental health treatment has not increased in over 20 years and is facing the threat of an additional 6.25% cut in the proposed budget.

If this passes, Kentucky’s current horrid system leaving people with severe mental illnesses no resources for treatment at all will get worse. How many friends, relatives, coworkers, neighbors, will continue to suffer and die prematurely as a result?

Why is this happening? Why are public funds for addictions treatment growing but funds for mental health treatment shrinking? Perhaps the answer is simple. People with mental illness don’t leave used syringes lying around for children to find and stick themselves with. They are unlikely to rob, steal, and break into houses to support their drug habit. Unlike the way they are often portrayed in the media, people with mental illness do not act out violently provided they have access to treatment. When people with a mental illness die, whether by suicide or by physical illnesses related to their mental illness, they do so privately and quietly, not by a drug overdose in a public place. In short, they are quiet and hidden.

Elected officials as a rule do not go under the bridges or into the homeless camps. People with severe mental illness are generally not troublemakers. News media and government officials can easily overlook or ignore them.

Despite these concerns we have made some progress in dealing with the mentally ill. We have made great progress — despite the law never being funded–with the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program that teaches law enforcement officers intervention techniques to help them deal with mental health crises. This has been accomplished largely by police, mental health professionals, and mental health advocates donating their time to the program. However the extensive training is all for naught if the law enforcement officer has no place to refer the person for treatment.

We all must be the voice of the mentally ill person.

We must confront and challenge our elected officials and administrative agencies with the reality of our mental health service deficiencies and their consequences.

We must make sure that political factors do not hijack what few resources we have for people with mental illness in order to “grease the squeaky wheel.”

We must be the squeaky wheel for those with mental illness.

Yes, the heroin epidemic is horrible with serious social consequences. But we cannot address it if we ignore the treatment of mental illness. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, reports that only 12% of the 2.6 million individuals with co-occurring serious mental illness and substance use disorders received both mental health and substance use treatment in 2016. More than 34% of the 2.6 million, or 884,000 individuals, did not receive any treatment whatsoever.

Adequate funding of mental health services is an essential component to dealing with the heroin epidemic. Kentucky’s elected officials and agencies must reverse the lack of mental health funding that has been the case the last two decades. If not, the heroin situation and the mental health situation will both continue to decline.

Dr. James Dahmann is a board member of NAMI Northern Kentucky.

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One Comment

  1. Harold A Maio says:

    —dealing with the mentally ill ???

    Editorially one deals with it precisely as one deals with “the” Blacks. Both caricature

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