LIMA — During the past year, mental health programs throughout the country have been in the spotlight after horrific, national tragedies.
Most notably was in December, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; 20 young schoolchildren were shot dead, along with six educators and the shooter’s mother. In Aurora, Colo., in July, a shooter killed 12 and wounded 58 others in a movie theater during the film premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises." In Ohio last February, three students died after a shooting at Chardon High School, near Cleveland.
Although little is known about the mental health of each of the three gunmen in those situations, legislators in the state and nationally have considered restoring funds to mental health programs.
“It is a blessing and a curse,” said Phil Atkins, associate director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties. “It’s good that people are finally paying attention to these issues, but so few people with a mental illness are violent.”
Earlier this month, Gov. John Kasich approved $5 million to develop crisis intervention programs for children and young adults with mental illnesses from the Office of Health Transformation’s Innovation Fund.
The money will “begin to deal with the problem of these acute mental illnesses that families have to deal with, where potential violence exists,” the governor said during a news conference, when the funding was announced Jan. 9.
For Mike Schoenhofer, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, he’s hopeful that the governor’s money is the beginning of more investments to come.
“With the recent events happening, there is a new highlight on the need for these services in our communities and with both President [Barack] Obama as well as Republican senators saying we need to do more,” he said. “I think it is likely we will see more funding in the future. At least, I hope so.”
Regional Mental Health Program Strengths
Despite financial obstacles during the past several years, there are many standout services in Lima and throughout the region that aren’t available in other rural areas, Schoenhofer said.
The mental health spectrum includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, among other conditions.
Schoenhofer specifically touted the We Care Regional Crisis Center as a great regional success. It’s a place where people who want to receive mental help can have access to it 24/7.
There have been 880 people who have used that service alone from July 1, 2011, to June 30. He said it’s one of only five programs like it in Ohio.
“From anywhere in our three counties, it’s less than a 45-minute drive to be seen immediately,” Atkins said.
While Schoenhofer said it’s difficult to compare one town to another because of different moving parts, there are problems specific to different areas. In a general sense, Lima has become a magnet for those with major mental illnesses because of the care they’re provided here. He said there is also a higher poverty rate.
“It all depends on resources. What one community may have, another may not. They’re clearly all dependent on their board to help strategically define what the board wants to pay for in those counties,” said Tammie Colon of Coleman Professional Services.
There are programs that are unique to any rural area because of the board’s collaboration with community members.
“We have 18 people from our three counties. Volunteers, citizens who are appointed, someone from the Department of Mental Health, someone from the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction, some of the county commissioners from each county,” said Atkins, associate director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board. “Because they have special knowledge or expertise ... that’s why some of the programs are so homegrown and unique, because those 18 people bring that knowledge to help us know what to do.”
Other organizations affiliated with the We Care Regional Crisis Center and the Mental Health Board that provide help and promote mental health include Family Resource Center, which focuses on children and their families in Allen, Auglaize, Hancock, Hardin and Shelby counties. Coleman Professional Services has existing programs in Allen, Auglaize and Hardin counties, providing counseling, psychiatry, crisis intervention, community support, supportive housing and criminal justice services. The not-for-profit organization receives assistance from the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.
Schoenhofer said the region has some great uniqueness and strength as far as other facets of mental health access goes.
Local law enforcement go through special training to know how to deal with people suffering from mental illness. There are a variety of services that go from nonprofits, the local hospitals to for-profit institutions. Also, Schoenhofer said he’s beginning to develop a mental health prevention program for young people based on existing programs and show the program to local educators.
There are other private facilities not affiliated with the board that are doing good work, too.
In Middle Point, a new facility has provided needs of the surrounding community. Ridgeview Hospital, a for-profit, 40-bed facility specializes in a dual diagnosis system: treating underlying mental illnesses simultaneously with drug abuse problems.
The quaint, one-story building is surrounded by cornfields. On a chilly January afternoon, the isolated facility seemed peaceful, quiet. That’s the charm for some who come from urban areas, sometimes from several hours away.
“We’re taking patients from Indiana, Michigan and Ohio within a four-hour radius. We’ve been out there, getting our name out there. We’ve had patients since May,” said Lisa Behnke, admissions specialist with Ridgeview Hospital. “There’s definitely a lot of need out there. There just isn’t a lot of help out there for it.”
Like most treatment facilities, schedules remain very structured for patients, going between counseling sessions, meetings with doctors, psychiatrists, nurses. Length of stays vary, but can typically go up to four weeks to allow for a full detox session and mental diagnosis.
“Since they stay here longer, that gives us an opportunity to observe them and diagnose all their symptoms. When they’re living here for two to four weeks, it kind of becomes like a family, the dynamics are like a family,” said Dr. Sahaja Reddy, of Ridgeview Hospital.
Many other treatment facilities vary between five- to 10-day stays.
Longstanding Financial Struggles
For those working in the mental health field, seeing a return of funds is a welcome trend, compared to what has happened in the past.
When state hospitals in Ohio began to shutter their doors in the 1980s, money was supposed to follow people into the communities where they went to continually support them, but Schoenhofer said that wasn’t always the case.
“All through those years, we received flat funding and the occasional increase, but the money never followed the patient into the community,” Schoenhofer said. “Many of us, including Allen, Auglaize and Hardin, have people to pay for the services for the local community. But the state didn’t fulfill its promise to bring the funding into the community.”
Then the economic recession hit in 2008. That year, the board suffered a $2 million cut.
“What basically happened is that really gutted our ability to do a lot of outreach that we had been doing, even with funding that was pretty inadequate to meet the needs at the time,” he said.
With the recent political landscape, things seem to be looking up now.
“Since that 2008-2009 kind of gutting we went through, I think there’s been some effort" to support mental health care, Schoenhofer said.
In addition to the governor’s acknowledgement to the situation, there are other things to be hopeful about.
“With the Affordable Health Care Act, there is a provision for expanding Medicaid for 138 percent of poverty,” he said. “That would make a significant impact for people who don’t have any insurance. That would really increase the number of people who would be eligible. We’d have a payer to pay for our services and that would really begin to relieve, in the next year or two, some of the burdens of the funding that we would have paid for by Medicaid. And the health insurance exchanges would give more people insurance coverage.”
As of right now though, most health insurance providers don’t pay for prevention and education, sometimes not even treatment services. That’s where the board comes in, to assist with programming and make it affordable for residents.
“We know that you can have a knee replacement and go into a 24-hour assisted facility while you overcome that particular crisis, and your health insurance pays for it,” Colon said. “But it doesn’t pay for you to go into a 24-hour facility if you’re having a behavioral health crisis and you need that 24-hour care until you recover.”
If the state ended up providing more funds to mental health agencies such as the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties, or even if different provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act went through, Schoenhofer said he hopes to focus funding on more prevention methods, particularly with teens and young adults, more outreach, crisis intervention and housing.
“There’s a whole number of things on my want list that we can begin to do,” he said.
The second half of this two-part story will be in Monday’s The Lima News.