Working Through Mental Illness Working Through Mental Illness

Do we really want to fund resources and services to meet the needs of all the members of our community?

I’m a mental health worker and I do discharge planning for folks being discharged from state psychiatric hospitals. I work with my clients and the hospital treatment teams to find an appropriate discharge placement and services to keep the client stable and out of the hospital, which is our goal for every client. [I] always joke that I hope I never see my clients again, at least in the work setting.

[I] love seeing my clients randomly at Kroger, living their lives out in the community. It’s an extremely rewarding job but frustrating when you see the lack of resources and housing options available in our community. 

A Very Brutal History

We have a very brutal history of how we treat folks with mental illness. We used to think that locking them up in an institution was the answer. Then we realized not only was it cheaper, but it was better for the client, to serve them in the community. We found that providing a day support program (PSR) helped them build their own social network of supports. It gave them a place to feel empowered, wanted, loved and appreciated. 

We found that providing PACT services where staff delivered medications and did a daily check-in was very successful in keeping folks on their medications. We found that providing MHSS services, where staff comes into their clients’ homes to model and teach living skills, helped for the future. It built skills like cooking, cleaning, budgeting and shopping so they could continue to live on their own.

We found that providing PSH vouchers helped subsidize a very small social security check so folks can afford to live on their own. Side note, the majority of my clients don’t have a work history, didn’t pay into the system so once they get approved for disability, they only get around $790 a month. 

Some People Need a Transition Period

Some of my clients are not appropriate to live on their own and need some sort of supported living. That could be a group home or a staffed apartment model, we desperately need those options. Some folks may need a transition period of a year or two to move out on their own, with supports. Others will need services for the rest of their lives and their level of care will change over their lifetime.

We need homes that can deal with a variety of behaviors and symptoms so folks can always live in the least restrictive environment. These residential programs have been monumental in not only keeping folks out of the hospital but has lifted so many clients up into working, schooling, etc. These programs literally help clients live their best lives. 

Without these services, and many other, like emergency services, case management, medication management, clients would be in the hospital more often and wouldn’t have a safe, appropriate place to discharge to. Many would be “stuck” in the hospital or in an inappropriate living situation.

RELATED: Lewis: We Desperately Need Criminal Justice Reform

Constantly Defunded

Due to the lack of appropriate placements, so many young people end up in assisted living facilities (ALF’s). They weren’t designed for this population and often lack the structure and stimulation that many clients need. I am not saying that ALF’s are bad, just the opposite. They are great for what they are designed to do. They are just not designed for 30 year old schizophrenics. But young folks with mental illness often end up in these facilities, with much older population.

The mental health field has been consistently defunded at the expense of appropriate services to serve all members of our community. We have prioritized other funding needs though conveniently blame mental health for so many of society’s problems. 

While we can talk about funding mental health all day but we also must address the need for housing vouchers and other resources when we could and should provide a living wage/basic income to everyone. We have to address affordable housing and accessible housing. We have seen programs shut their doors, we have seen group homes shut down, residential program funding dry up and not return. There are less options now than ever before. Can you give an example of the programs we no longer have? 

We Are Going Backwards

Sadly, we are returning to the days of locking people away, expanding jails and state institutions. We do this instead of funding thoughtful services in our community. The research proves it’s cheaper. It’s much cheaper to prevent hospitalization. It’s much cheaper to prevent more damage to the brain and impacts to their quality of life. 

The things I see in the mental health field are seen in the developmental disability field too. I am Chair of the Board of Arc of Augusta. Folks are on waitlists for decades, families are faced with difficult situations that most of us could never imagine.

Imagine being told to abandon your adult child with autism so they can get put on an emergency waiver. They get access to funding and resources that otherwise you’ll be waiting years for. 

Make a Decision

We must decide on what kind of community and society we want to live in. Do we want to fund resources and services to meet the needs of all the members of our community? Or do we want to be a community that funds a building to house folks? Do we want to fund the creation of jobs for mental health workers to serve our community? Or do we want to fund the creation of jobs for staff to supervise residents in the exact institutions we said we needed to get rid of just a few decades ago? 

Please think about these important things when you go to vote. Vote for folks who will be thoughtful in funding.

Jennifer Lewis is a grassroots activist and community organizer, avid volunteer and kitty rescuer. She currently serves as chair of Arc of Augusta, on the board of Valley Hope Counseling, as captain of Waynesboro SAW Mutual Aid group, and works full time as a mental health worker. She lives in Waynesboro.