Arundel shores up mental health services

February 23, 2011|By John Leopold

While mass shootings in places such as Tucson, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and Columbine have raised many issues, little attention has been directed to our nation's fragile mental health care system. Recently, I organized and hosted a public forum at Anne Arundel Community College to address the need to improve access to behavioral health resources, and we have begun to outline a strategy focusing on prevention, early intervention and treatment. Our paramount goal must be to provide early and effective assistance to people who need it.

People with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders have long faced barriers to timely treatment because of social stigma and discrimination. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors advises that the stigma attached to mental illness makes it less likely people will seek or continue treatment and that the vast majority of those living with mental illness pose no danger to anyone. Most people with these chronic illnesses maintain normal family and work lives. Eight percent of adults in the U.S. are estimated to have had a serious mental illness in the past year. Almost a quarter of these adults also abuse alcohol or drugs, and more than half of people with co-occurring disorders did not receive any treatment in the previous year.

Unfortunately, there are walking among us a small number of people who are ticking time bombs that do pose a serious threat to their fellow citizens as well as to themselves. We must do all that we can to forestall preventable tragedies in the future.

Mental health and substance abuse treatment resources have been impacted by the economic downturn, and mental health care services have been cut in federal, state and local budgets — including 12 percent in Anne Arundel County, where the total budget for these services is now $30 million from all funding sources. Our Department of Health's Child and Adolescent Clinic in Glen Burnie serves more than 400 children between the ages of 6 and 18 annually, and the demand for services continues to grow. Likewise, the number of calls to our county's Crisis Response Warm Line has increased, and the County Mental Health Agency maintains a countywide network of providers. We have placed the "Warm Line" phone number on our county website at http://www.aacounty.org.

There needs to be an even greater continuum of services to offer appropriate care for people within their own neighborhoods. Prevention, early intervention and well-coordinated treatment will ultimately result in decreased costs to the care system and to our communities. In this difficult economy, we must find ways to do more with less, as we have with every department — but we also must try to protect mental health services by ensuring there are no sacred cows when it comes to the budget.

Our forum also focused on the role individuals can take in providing mental health first aid: identifying risk factors and signs of mental illness and knowing available resources for family and friends. Information sharing is a critical issue; we were able to secure passage of legislation last year in the General Assembly that enhances communication between school resource officers and the police department. We also created a new parenting program at our community college to help the parents of our middle school-age children identify the warning signs of suicide and gang activity. We hope to expand this program by improving communication regarding mental health issues among the County Mental Health Agency, the Department of Social Services, the County Health Department, the Department of Juvenile Services, the police department, the public schools, the community college and our county hospitals.

In Anne Arundel County, we will continue to have this dialogue and to look for innovative solutions and partnerships to improve mental health counseling and treatment for our residents.

John Leopold is the Anne Arundel County executive. His e-mail is jleopold@aacounty.org.

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