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Guest column | Darlene Linville

Hernando County must reverse mental illness trends

At 1 p.m. Friday, the Hernando County Health Care Advisory Board will be presented with some alarming statistics about the prevalence of mental illness in our community. The study, released by the health care council WellFlorida, shows that our county exceeds the state average in several key categories, and the support system is one-dimensional because it focuses almost entirely upon crisis intervention.

Although that information is troubling, it is not new. A study submitted to the Health Care Advisory Board three years ago pointed out the same shortcomings. The fact that almost nothing has been done since then to seriously address this persistent problem should concern every resident of Hernando County whose lives have been touched by this stigma-laden disease.

Data contained in the report by WellFlorida, one of 11 health councils in the state and the technical and administrative support partner of the local Health Care Advisory Board, shows that from 2001 to 2008 Hernando County exceeded the state average in the following key indicator categories: suicide rates; incidents of domestic violence; Baker Act initiations (the process of involuntary commitment for mental health reasons); and mental health hospitalizations.

A very similar report was released to the Health Care Advisory Board and our county commissioners in 2006. Since then, there have been earnest and sincere discussions by the stakeholders in the private and public sectors to examine the problem. However, those discussions have led to more discussions, but little concrete action and even fewer results.

It is time to do more than talk. This is an everyday crisis that is costing the residents of Hernando County precious tax dollars, and that money would be better spent on programs that support prevention and treatment while helping our neighbors recover from their afflictions.

Hernando County's mental health care consists of crisis intervention only. The network consists of:

• A small crisis intervention unit at Harbor (Baycare) Behavioral Health Care Institute, where beds are full with people in crisis waiting many hours to be evaluated.

• Springbrook Psychiatric Hospital, which has a more than a 90 percent monthly occupancy rate.

• Three for-profit hospitals, none of which has a psychiatric ward, which contributes to their emergency rooms being overwhelmed.

• An overburdened judicial system that is strained further by criminal cases where people with untreated, nonviolent mental illness wait to be sent to jail.

• A jail that is overcrowded and which desperately needs more space for hard-core criminals and violent offenders.

Hernando County also has a shortage of psychiatrists; and limited or no followup care for those released from jail, court or a crisis unit and who have no money for preventive treatment as they attempt to live with their very treatable disease. Housing where support and medication continues the mental health care is nonexistent, as are rehabilitative services.

Hernando County is ignoring the statistics by providing only crisis care. How do we stop this cycle? And how do we ensure that those who are struggling with the disease can maintain their dignity and not be regarded as criminals?

We're doing what we can at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Hernando is an all-volunteer organization with a mission to educate, advocate and support the individuals and families of those living with mental illness. There are 37 chapters like ours in Florida and more than 1,300 nationwide.

But organizations like ours need help. Hernando County residents need more accessible treatment, medication and support. They do not need more crisis units, courts and jails. Mental illness is not a character flaw; it is a disease of the mind. Treatment works!

Stand with us at the Health Care Advisory Board meeting Friday in the John Law Ayers Room, Room 160, Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Brooksville. Let the board members know you support more options for mental health care, and that you support programs that are progressive, not reactive. Tell them it is time to transform their discussions into deeds.

Darlene Linville is president of NAMI Hernando and can be contacted through the group's Web site, NAMIhernando.org.

Hernando County must reverse mental illness trends 07/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 5:44pm]

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