For a person with mental illness, reaching out for help may be the first step toward healing.
However, there are times when people with severe mental illness fall through the cracks. Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, is calling for strengthening of New York state's Kendra's Law.
The law, which was signed by Gov. George Pataki in 1999, allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for individuals who voluntarily won't seek help, but are a safety threat. The law is designed to prevent serious harm to the mentally ill person or others.
"The current system is flawed, even in New York," Sen. Young said. "Why should we allow people with the most severe psychiatric disturbances who pose a risk to themselves or others to deteriorate before they get help? Why should we wait until they become a safety threat? It doesn't make sense. Strengthening Kendra's Law would save victims."
Chautauqua County offers a variety of places to turn for information regarding mental illness, however where to find this information is still puzzling for many.
"We've been spending a lot of time over the last year just trying to look at where we are and what we still need to do and publicizing (the Chautauqua County Crisis Helpline) number," said Patricia Brinkman, director of community mental hygiene services for the county. "(The phone number) is a well-kept secret, in spite of our efforts. As we've been improving our emergency system over the last year, one of the things we've identified is we need to get our number out there more, so people know what to do and who to call."
CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY SERVICES
The Department of Mental Hygiene encompasses many agencies throughout the county. Included in the system are Chautauqua Adult Daycare; Chautauqua Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council; Chautauqua Opportunities; Crisis Services; Family Services of Jamestown, Housing Options Made Easy; Mental Health Association of Chautauqua County; The Resource Center; TLC Health Network; and Southern Tier Environments for Living.
"I think what people forget about The Resource Center is that we have four programs that are licensed by the Department of Mental Health that are completely separate from the developmental disability population they're used to," said Michelle Williams, director of mental health services at The Resource Center. "We have four licensed mental health programs with the same license that Chautauqua County Mental Health has and WCA Outpatient Mental Health has."
The Resource Center, Williams said, works with clients with a variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, personality disorders, alcohol issues, stress, grief, and any other mental health problems.
In addition to its treatment programs, The Resource Center also has services for family members of a person with mental disabilities or illness.
"When people are dually diagnosed, when they may have a mental health condition and a developmental disability, then it gets a little bit more where we need to put in more services for support for those people," said Tess Kerzner, director of children's services for The Resource Center. "For example, for people with developmental disabilities or autism, we do a parent support group. For children, we do what we call a sib shop."
There are a variety of programs The Resource Center provides beyond the support groups, though. Evaluations are available in the diagnostic and treatment clinic, which provides the community access to psychiatry, psychology, testing and evaluations. There are mental health clinics, physical therapy, speech and audiology services available. Additionally, The Resource Center provides behavioral interventions.
"We also have a program called the success group, which is supporting, understanding, changing, coping, and everyday social skills," Kerzner said. "Some of the young children that we work with, and even some adults that have autism, that have some social skill issues, what we do is we have a program for them that helps them kind of work and deal in social situations that they need to work on."
"If you stop and think about what we've gone through as a country after Newtown, there's a great deal of anxiety, for example amongst our children," Brinkman said. "Schools are dealing with children that may be afraid to come to school because of what they've seen on television. Parents can be anxious. Those are normal feelings and reactions, but if those go on for a prolonged period of time, then you move into a situation where someone may be able to diagnosed with a mental illness."
According to Brinkman, early screening in children is the most proactive way to address mental illness. She said often, catching potential problems early prevents most severe problems as children age.
"We have lots of visions for our children and having a child that may be overly anxious or have acting out behavior is not something that parents want to confront, many times," she said. "We try to help by our early recognition and screening approach. We have a full-time individual that travels around the community, working with the schools, working with families. She is available every day to screen."
However, young children are not the only people who should be screened. Symptoms for mental health issues, such as schizophrenia - which typically is recognized in an adult's early 20s - can be screened in teenagers.
"If individuals aren't relating well to peers, if they're isolated, if they're chronically anxious, if they're not feeling the normal joy, there are some (early warning signs)," Brinkman said. "We also encourage early detection in the teen years, because some of the research is showing that the warning signs for schizophrenia appear as early as 13 or 14 years old."
The Department of Mental Hygiene Services oversees the Jamestown Mental Health Clinic; Dunkirk Mental Health Clinic, Jamestown Alcohol and Substance Abuse Clinic and the Dunkirk Alcohol and Substance Abuse Clinic. Additionally, several school districts - including Jamestown, Brocton, Chautauqua Lake, Pine Valley - have programs in some of their schools.
"We are trying, as funds allow, to be able to do more of that, because we find it to be really a wonderful vehicle to serve kids," Brinkman said.
REACHING OUT FOR HELP
Williams said many of the referrals made to The Resource Center are self-referrals. Then there are intake assessments and evaluations to help the center learn what type of services best meet the person's need.
However, many programs also receive referrals from schools, primary care doctors, social services and treatment court. And, if a family member has a concern, they can reach out for services.
"If parents can pick up the phone and call a clinic, for example, and say, 'Gee, I'm seeing this with my child, is this something that I really need to bring a child in to see about?' Then, they're going to be more comfortable," Brinkman said. "Maybe all it takes is for them to hear that what they're doing is exactly what they need to be doing. Maybe there are some warning signs that they are picking up on."
ERASING THE STIGMA
In several cases, mental illness is looked at after a tragedy happens. However, Brinkman said that the majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
"A very small percentage of people with mental illness act out in a violent way," Brinkman said. "For the majority of people, it's their day-to-day functioning that's affected. Their experience of joy and family, and the kinds of things that we take for granted are affected."
Williams spent several years teaching courses on addictions and mental health at Jamestown Community College. Additionally, she has 15 years of experience in the mental health field.
"I wouldn't even want to say that 1 percent of the population I've worked with is violent," Williams said. "Most individuals have chronic issues, but when treated, when given the necessary support, they absolutely can be productive, functional members of society. The stigma that (the Newtown school shooting) has given is unfortunate, because it really is going to change people's perception and judgment of our population, and that's scary."
When teaching, Williams tells students that the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, yet it's the organ people struggle most with in getting help.
"It's very hard for me to speak for what has happened, because I have no idea of what (Adam Lanza's) diagnosis was, but in my mind, I would say that the most beneficial thing we can do is decrease the stigma associated with mental illness," Williams said. "Allow people avenues to get help. Accept that we can get help, and then move forward."
Additionally, Brinkman said seeking help is not a sign of weakness, as it is sometimes perceived.
"The stigma, I guess, as a society, we're sometimes afraid to seek help, because we think that other people may think it's a weakness on our part," she said. "But, it's not. Seeking treatment is a strength."
WHERE TO TURN
Additional resources about mental health can be found online or by making a phone call. Resources on the county's mental hygiene department may be found at www.co.chautauqua.ny.us/departments/MentalHygiene. Additionally, information about The Resource Center may be found at www.resourcecenter.org.
The Chautauqua County Crisis Helpline, which provides a 24-hour crisis phone intervention, information and referrals, is 1-800-724-0461.
Likewise, the Health Department in Jamestown may be reached at 661-8111. The phone number for the Health Department in Dunkirk is 363-3660. And, the Health Department in Mayville can be contacted at 753-4491.
"People can't be afraid to seek help. It's a sign of strength, and it really does help an individual to get better sooner and to stay well," Brinkman said. "Life is so short, we want people to experience it fully."