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Working together to answer the mental health care challenge

It is with a very heavy heart that I tell you that the son of my friend Phylis, Andrew, died recently.

His father, Jimmy, found him while looking to wake him so they could go out shopping for clothes.

They had had a wonderful family gathering the night before with a lot of hope for the future. Again, Andrew is added to the overwhelming number of people with mental health and heroin addiction. In and out of jail, he never embraced the mental health piece.

His mother and father are some of my favorite people. Both are hardworking and very family focused.

Jimmy would stand in line from early morning with the kids to get free or reduced priced tickets for a music or race car event in New York.

We would bump into them at a maritime museum in Connecticut and they would have their son and grandchildren in tow. Phylis couldn't be a better example of someone who could soar and inspire.

She has overcome multiple challenges, not the least being a heart attack and bipolar disorder.

She worked cleaning homes/catering while returning to school to become an extraordinary therapist.

Today she runs a school program for children and families in the community who are marginalized by poverty. Plus, she finds ways to get them to theater and music events — anything that might stir them to move beyond and imagine a different future.

She wrote a book on navigating bipolar for those struggling with this disease and their loved ones.

She is one of my She-roes.

Throughout this country and I believe the world, good people like Phylis and Jimmy are losing the "war on drugs." We're losing the battle.

It is touching families across the spectrums of economics, age and ethnicity. We are in a worldwide crisis.

When will we begin to acknowledge the failure of the war on drugs and bring together representatives from the grassroots of communities across the world to think out of the box? We need to pursue multiple avenues, acknowledge barriers, spark recovery and develop a greater appreciation of life.

We have lost so many of our children, nieces, nephews, friends. Aren't we tired of this? What will it take to trigger enough outrage to begin the process that can bring hope for our future generations?

The state of Florida continues to hover at 49th in spending on mental health services. All too often mental health and substance abuse go hand in hand.

We lack a full continuum of care.

Housing and a clubhouse model like Vincent House are just two of the major needs that go unmet when a person leaves the hospital or jail and consequently ends up on the streets — and on drugs.

On the other end of the care spectrum, we have some of the highest staff turnover in the nation due to low salaries. Some staff members haven't received a salary increase in 3-4 years.

Mike Hansen, president and CEO of The Florida Council for Community Mental Health, said last spring that "community mental health was at imminent risk of collapse," citing the impact of high staff turnover on clients and the challenge of attracting quality staff because of low salaries.

I don't pretend to have the answers but I do have some of the questions and I am sure that we can do a better job than we are presently doing.

But it will take all of us: client, family, systems, hospitals, present-day silos, legislators, faith-based organizations and researchers to venture beyond our comfort zones and get creative.

We need to be willing to move beyond systems and really meet the needs of individuals with a recovery attitude. It can be done but only if our systems and silos begin the change that we ask clients and families to make.

Let's begin to treat the whole person instead of the silo effect which depends on the doorway you go in that determines the service you get. Our loved ones need to be seen in their entirety, including their potential and what they can bring to the community they live in.

I challenge us to create a continuum that includes housing for our mentally ill that doesn't have them in assisted living facilities with those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's. That is the worst of setups for both individuals.

Let's make sure we have a Clubhouse model where individuals who suffer from mental illness have viable outlets. Let's bring mental health/substance abuse/trauma informed care education to our schools and those in the helping professions.

Yes, I am floating between mental heath and substance abuse, but that's because all too often our loved ones find themselves there.

There will be those who do okay with the present day services offered, but for those who don't, we need to dig deeper into our bag of tools or create new tools.

Please keep my friends Phylis, Jimmy and their daughters in your thoughts and prayers.

And don't forget to embrace your family and tell them how much they mean to you. Life is precious and we need to recognize that.

I send you all my embrace and hope that you have a wonderful holiday season and new year.

I challenge us all to do something to offer hope for all children and adults in every community.

The change begins with you and me.

Karen Fredricks, MSW, is the Hillsborough County president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She originally wrote this as a letter to friends, and modified the piece at the request of the Tampa Bay Times. She can be reached at

Working together to answer the mental health care challenge 12/30/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2016 5:22pm]
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