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Marilyn L. Cook: Keep mental health services viable, accessible

  • Published Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Research tells us that only 10 percent of the homicides in our country were perpetrated by individuals with a mental illness. The research also tells us that individuals with a mental illness are 11 times more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.

Violence and mental illness are both extremely complex issues. Sadly, our focus on mental illness comes predominantly after tragedies such as those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., and at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University. Part of the dilemma we face is that when these tragedies occur, they confuse the general public and serve to perpetuate the stigma that has long been associated with mental illness and those who seek treatment remedies.

Our state and local communities are among the many that have faced significant reductions in funding of the public mental health system. These cuts have been taking place for five years, the same time frame in which our economy has struggled. And during this time of funding cuts, more individuals than ever are approaching the public mental health system for services. Many of them have lost jobs or dependent insurance coverage, or are facing increases in deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses that have made seeking care nearly impossible.

Even though funding for our public mental health system has diminished, our community is fortunate to have a wide array of crisis and treatment services available to our residents. Sedgwick County has more than 200 Crisis Intervention Team officers specially trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and substance-use disorders and to de-escalate situations involving these individuals. We have city and county drug court programs, and Wichita is the only place in the state to have a mental health court. The purpose of these special problem-solving courts is to engage individuals in treatment rather than have them get further entangled in the legal system.

We recognize that early identification and intervention in mental health problems are essential. Comcare operates four therapeutic programs for preschool children ages 3 to 5 who have been expelled from preschools, day cares and other child care settings because of their disruptive behaviors. We have seen children successfully leave this program prepared to tackle the emotional challenges they will face in elementary school and beyond.

Our state and local community must do everything possible to ensure that mental health services are available to all who need them, as community mental health centers are the public safety nets for this state. Untreated or undertreated mental illness destroys lives every day and contributes to domestic disputes, child abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and, yes, in some cases, violence. When individuals don’t receive timely services, their symptoms worsen and can result in more expensive care in the long run such as hospitalization.

Our community is also fortunate to have a Mental Health First Aid program available. Similar to first aid classes sponsored by the American Red Cross, Mental Health First Aid teaches individuals the signs and symptoms of various mental health and substance use conditions, and teaches them how to intervene until professional help can be provided.

Please help us in supporting adequate funding to keep our community mental health safety-net system viable and readily accessible to those who need our services. We owe this to the people in our community and to those who struggle each day with mental illness.

Marilyn L. Cook is executive director of Comcare of Sedgwick County.

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