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Mental health center: Meet us, see whom budget cuts affect

ST. PETERSBURG — Louan Candiff is 49 and likes to play video games.

Her favorite is an adventure game where she kills monsters. It's more therapy than fun.

"If I can kill the monsters on the screen, then I can kill them in my sleep and in real life," said Candiff, who is schizophrenic and suffers from dissociative identity disorder or "multiple personalities."

About a year ago, the Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health helped Candiff get a used computer. But the hard drive broke. Not too long afterward, one of Candiff's drug-addicted personalities, "Jackie," emerged, and she was evicted from her apartment.

With a computer to kill the monsters, Candiff is more confident, she said. But with an already shrinking budget, center officials don't have the money for another one.

"We have no resources," said Libby Hopkins, program manager who works at the center's wellness and recovery center. "We had a critical position cut — the housing specialist. The more funding gets cut the harder it is to serve."

It's a message the staff at the center and the clients it serves hope to drive home to city and state officials when it hosts a special breakfast meeting later this week.

"We want them to know there is just not adequate funding for the mental health system," said Barbara Daire, president of the Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health. "We cannot serve the number of people in our community who need services; we turn a lot of people away every week."

Last year the center received $15.5-million in state and local funding. This year they expect at least $500,000 less, but anticipate it could be an even bigger cut once local charities deal with their own budget cuts.

Last year the center served 17,000 people, from youths to seniors. It operates about 40 programs that range from medical care to substance abuse support.

Florida ranks 48 out of 50 states in funding for mental health services, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Daire and others hope by having clients speak to elected officials on Thursday, it will begin a dialogue to turn around those numbers. So far, St. Petersburg City Council members Wengay Newton and Jamie Bennett have pledged to attend. Staff members from state Sen. Charlie Justice's office also are on the list.

"When they review their budgets, we want them to know these are real people with real faces," said Elizabeth Austin, a community relations specialist for the center. "They're not just a subculture."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727)893-8828.

. Fast facts

If you go

The Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health's meet and greet is open to the public and will be held on Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Wellness and Recovery Center, 3800 Central Avenue. For more information, call (727) 327-7656.

Mental health center: Meet us, see whom budget cuts affect 09/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 19, 2008 8:28pm]
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