Community Impact Forum spotlights mental health awareness

By Josette Keelor

WINCHESTER — Friday morning’s Community Impact Forum addressed community needs, highlighting the importance of mental health awareness.

The United Way of the Northern Shenandoah Valley presented its Community Needs Update, and author Diana Ketterman and CNN.com staff writer Wayne Drash spoke on the impact mental health has had on the families fighting to find help for their loved ones.

The Community Needs Update, completed in partnership with Lord Fairfax Community College, compares data from a 2014 study to a study done in 2010 and gives an overview of statistics on education, income and health in the community.

Among the statistics discussed, the study found Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties had improved their risk rankings in alcohol usage between 2010 and 2014. In the category of sexually transmitted diseases, the data found Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren all improved their risk rankings. Clarke County remained the same, ranking better than the other jurisdictions.

Drash, who frequently reports on mental health in America, has heard from families around the country who see him as an advocate for mental health awareness and share stories with him they often can’t share with anyone else.

“So many of you live it every day,” Drash told the audience, “and by no means is that easy.”

Reading from a story he wrote last year about a family in Texas raising a 13-year-old son with bipolar disorder, he said, “More than 60 million adults and about 15 million children in America suffer some form of mental disorder. That’s one in every four adults, one in five children.”

“The mass shootings that shine a spotlight on mental illness actually stigmatize those who suffer with it,” he continued later. “The vast majority, advocates point out, are far more likely to be the victims of violence. They’re often get beat up or bullied than to commit a violent act.”

He said the people he talks with are desperate for someone to listen.

“One mother in Kentucky, she keeps a journal for the day she believes her son will kill her,” he told the crowd. “Another has twice been assaulted by her son. A father in Cleveland tried to intervene. When his son flashed a knife at police, when police were called to the home, the father was tasered and the son was killed.”

“So many of these families tell me the same thing,” Drash said. They document their efforts in trying to get their children help and send the information to lawmakers. “It may, if they’re lucky, result in some kind of action, and that’s a pretty pathetic standard if that’s the case,” Drash said.

“I’m convinced more than ever that this is one of the most important issues of our times,” he told the crowd. “If we don’t do it right and seek reform, when will we?”

After Drash finished speaking, forum chair Jorge Gutierrez opened the floor to questions.

Audience members included representatives from Northwestern Community Services, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They raised their hands to ask questions, stood to offer solutions and offered ideas for change.

Eighty percent of calls to Concern Hotline Inc. are about behavioral health, said board President Rusty Holland.

Winchester Chief of Police Kevin Sanzenbacher said local police departments would be aided if 911 callers knew to ask for a trained member of the Crisis Intervention Team when dealing with a family member or friend suffering from mental health.

Unless it’s a life or death situation, he said, “I don’t believe it’s a police issue. We are the solution as a last resort.”

Still, many suffering from mental illness end up in jail before treatment programs.

As Drash sees it, mental health is expensive for a community to treat. It costs about $600 a day for treatment, he said. “It costs maybe $80 or $90 a day for a jail cell.”

Asked what can be done on a national level, Drash cited the Helping Families in Mental Health Act, controversial legislation introduced by Colorado Congressman Tim Murphy in December 2013, which, according to information at the website for the Children’s Mental Health Network, http://www.cmhnetwork.org, would “make available needed psychiatric, psychological, and supportive service for individuals diagnosed with mental illness and families in mental health crisis, and for other purposes.”

Said Drash, “Many would say it’s the most sweeping reform bill since the 1980s. … I do expect there will be a lot of movement on mental health by the end of this year.”

To read the Community Needs Update, visit http://tinyurl.com/qdgrjar

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>