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Fri, Dec. 06

Stigma follows those with treatable mental illness

(EDITOR'S NOTE – This is the second part of a two-part series examining mental illness.)

It's an illness with invisible symptoms. There are no red spots, no open sores, no drastic loss of weight, no shortness of breath, no stopping of a beating heart.

But this invisible illness is more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

It's mental illness. You can't see it because it's a physical brain disorder—a biochemical illness of the brain.

Mental illness disrupts a person's ability to think, feel and relate. It reveals itself as erratic or unreasonable behavior. That behavior often is attributed to causes other than physical brain disorders.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) says that today's medications can control many symptoms of serious mental illness. The treatment success rate for people with bipolar disorder is 80 percent; the rate for schizophrenia is 60 percent; and the success rate for major depression is 65 percent.

So why are so many people with severe mental illnesses untreated, homeless, suicidal, unemployed and in jail or prison?

NAMI says that stigma continues to be the most significant barrier to people getting the help they need. People don't get help because they're ashamed.

"Stigma is still the biggest hurdle for people with mental illness, and for their family and their friends," said Laura Norman, community relations coordinator with the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic (WYGC). "People often don't understand because you can't see the illness. People understand what they can see."

Mental illness research also is significantly underfunded. People with mental illnesses account for about 20 percent of the world's total disabled resulting from all diseases and injuries. Yet for every U.S. taxpayer dollar spent on medical research, less than one cent is allocated to schizophrenia, one of the most disabling mental illnesses.

In February 1999, the guidance clinic was serving about 500 clients with serious mental illness. Now, 18 months later, the number of clients the center classifies as seriously mentally ill has reached 612 – a 22 percent increase.

"The growth in Yavapai County is creating a need for more money and more trained people who can help the mentally ill," Norman said.

There is a facility shortage, she said.

"For instance, we are the only public agency with an inpatient, residential chemical dependency unit in Yavapai and Mohave counties," she said. "For people with substance abuse problems, there is no other public option. That should tell you about the shortage of facilities."

NAMI also says the existing mental health care system is overburdened and unable to provide the services and treatments people need.

Capt. Ron Klein, responsible for detention services at the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, agrees.

"There are not enough facilities to handle the mental health needs of our community," Klein said.

Last year, the Justice Department said that more than a quarter -million inmates in prisons nationwide suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other severe mental illnesses.

The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office has its share, and they're taking steps to deal with mental health issues in the jail system.

John Woods, M.D., forensic psychiatrist, works about 20 hours a week with prisoners and also responds to emergency situation calls that involve mental health issues.

Sheriff's office personnel interview each person who enters the system within 24 hours to identify needs of the inmate population, Klein said.

"We ask about medical needs, educational levels, learning disabilities and behavioral issues," Klein said. The sheriff's office trains their personnel to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness. The office also has two behavioral therapists on staff, who do not wear uniforms, to help inmates deal with anxieties that result from incarceration.

The jail system carries basic medications for mental illnesses, so the psychiatrist can see that inmates continue with prescribed medications.

Before an inmate is released, a therapist makes an appointment with a local agency for that person to continue treatment for behavioral health issues.

It's more common, Klein said, for inmates to ask for counseling. The jail system sponsors group therapy and clinic sessions.

But the system usually can help the seriously mentally ill only after a lengthy wait and a court order.

Klein said local agencies and treatment centers used by the sheriff's office face the same funding and facility shortage problems.

The need for mental health services in the community exceeds the resources available.

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