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Mental Health Awareness

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Expert Voices: The state of mental health in Western New York

Jodie Altman

Campus director of Renaissance Campus at Kids Escaping Drugs

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

The stigma society places on people with mental health disorders is a major issue in our community. Similar to substance use disorders, no one chooses to have mental health issues. People who are suffering recognize that something is wrong but, oftentimes, do not know where to turn for help, or they choose not to seek help because of their fear of being judged. We need to recognize that one of every five adults suffers with a mental health disorder. It is important we make treatment available without shame. Family members also need support, help in identifying issues with their loved ones and help accessing needed services.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

I believe we are making some progress but, as with other diseases, it is slow. There is more we can be doing. We are seeing improvements in regard to stigma, but there is still a struggle to navigate the system when looking for available services. We need to simplify the process and make treatment available in a more comprehensive way, with as few roadblocks as possible.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

As with any disease, knowledge is power. Educate yourself on the signs, symptoms and available resources in WNY. If you suspect someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, or if your loved one comes to you asking for help, don’t hesitate. Try to understand the person has an illness and needs your help to get better. Don’t give up on your loved one, no matter how difficult things may get. The next time you try to help them may be the exact moment when they are receptive to treatment.

What can the community do to help?

The community needs to see mental health disorders as illness and not behavioral problems. We need to become educated, reduce the stigma and make our treatment system easily accessible. We need to think about how we would want to be treated if we were suffering and treat others with the same dignity and respect.


Michele Brooks

Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Buffalo & Erie County.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Buffalo & Erie County helps families of those with mental illness, especially more chronic, serious mental illness. From our perspective—the families’ perspective—the biggest issue is that the system is difficult to navigate and care is not always timely, effective or easy to access. It lacks coordination for co-occurring mental illness, substance abuse, and general health conditions. Other system shortcomings include the lack of inpatient, transitional or long-term residential housing, a shortage of professionals, inadequate or no health insurance, and lack of collaboration among providers and families due to privacy laws. For those with untreated serious and persistent mental illness, the system’s failure many times results in the most tragic outcomes: repeated hospitalizations, homelessness, incarceration and death.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

Progress is being made in some sectors of the mental health system. Improvements include new approaches such as the behavioral health home, which not only integrates primary, mental health and substance abuse care, but also assists with basic needs, such as housing. Families and their loved ones are experiencing better interactions with police as a result of Crisis Intervention Training. Other progress includes early intensive treatment programs for adolescents and young adults with emerging mental health conditions, and reentry programs for incarcerated individuals reintegrating into the community.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

Families and friends can play a significant role in the lives of their loved ones, first by taking their concerns seriously, helping them seek care early and by providing emotional and practical support. People should educate themselves, through classes like NAMI’s Family-to-Family 12-week class, reputable online resources, and community support groups. Though often facing frustration, people must remain compassionate, keeping in mind that mental illness is a brain disorder and their loved ones may lack the insight to recognize their illness and seek treatment.

People experiencing signs of mental illness can help themselves by first recognizing they are not alone. They should reach out to someone: a family member, friend, their primary care doctor, school counselor, teacher, clergy, or other person they trust. They should not let stigma keep them from seeking help early.

What can the community do to help?

The community can help by educating themselves and recognizing that mental illness is like any other physical illness; it is a brain disorder. The community can help overcome the stigma of mental illness, which frequently leads to fear of being labeled and not seeking treatment. Most people who seek treatment for mental illness successfully control or recover from their illness. They should recognize, however, some people who have serious and persistent mental illness will not recover and will require life-long treatment and support.


Anne Constantino

President & CEO of Horizon Health Services

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

Depression and anxiety affect many individuals each year, interfering with living a happy and fulfilled life. Many people do not understand that depression is often caused or exacerbated by a genetic imbalance of the chemicals in the brain—and not by some moral failing or personal weakness, so these conditions often go untreated because people don’t understand or believe they can feel better with treatment and support. As a result, we are facing a serious suicide epidemic.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

There is progress being made. We have improved screening for depression and anxiety at routine medical visits and we have increased community education and anti-stigma campaigns. Mental health providers have instituted processes to expedite care access and to engage and educate family members to support patient treatment. There is a continued push for increased funding and resources to support adequate and accessible rehabilitation, treatment and recovery supports.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

Often people who are suffering don’t understand or acknowledge their symptoms. Family members are key in offering support, understanding and hope. Specifically, a family member or significant other should express concern and offer support and assistance in accessing treatment. It is also important for significant others to learn about the specific condition their loved one is dealing with and to be alert for increased symptoms or warning signs. It is important that every person knows they could be the ONE who can make the difference in someone’s life. It is reported by those who have survived a suicide attempt that if just ONE person intervened that day or asked one question, things might have gone differently. People should know that clearly asking the question “Are you considering suicide?” can be a lifesaving conversation.

For individuals who are aware they are not feeling right or that specific behaviors are interfering in their life, they should speak to a trusted family member or doctor or call a community mental health center for an evaluation.

What can the community do to help?

The community needs to pay particularly close attention to teenagers and young adults—the most at-risk population—by asking them about their stressors, their fears. On average, more than 50% of Buffalo teens report they worry they have an anxiety or depression issue.

It’s also important to support legislators and legislation designed to ensure that treatment programs receive reimbursement rates adequate to hire, train and retain qualified staff in sufficient numbers to meet the need - as well as support community and agency efforts to address stigma, educate the public and encourage patients/families to seek care.


Steven L. Dubovsky, MD

Professor and Chair for University at Buffalo Department of Psychiatry.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

There is a severe shortage of psychiatrists, with inadequate third party coverage for treatment by psychiatrists.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

We are gradually increasing the number of psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners. I see no change in reimbursement plans.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

Talk to the person first. If there is, in fact, an issue, discuss this first with the person’s personal physician. The best way to help yourself is to get an evaluation to determine if you have the kind of problem that requires treatment. If people could cure themselves, you wouldn’t need a mental health system.

What can the community do to help?

Lobby for better reimbursement to psychiatrists in order to retain more qualified practitioners in the region. Do not go to the emergency room if you do not have a true emergency. The emergency room does not provide mental health consultations; they are there to decide whether someone needs hospitalization or can be safely discharged home. Work with advocacy groups and local foundations to develop a broader continuum of mental health care in the community.


Ann Griepp, MD

Chief Medical Officer for Behavior Health at Univera Health Care.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

It is hard to narrow down to one issue - depression, suicide, teen depression, alcoholism, opioid use, eating disorders. At the risk of sounding trite, I think I would say that stigma continues to be the biggest issue facing us. I don't mean stigma in some canned way that inspires some campaign - I mean the stigma I see every single day, at work, at parties.

Is there progress being made?

Yes. There is improved detection of various mental health conditions through simple screenings (phQ9, GAD 7), which often starts the discussion about symptoms.

Emerging peer-led services have made support and encouragement available through individuals with lived experiences of mental health issues. For substance use disorders, there is increased awareness of medication-assisted treatments like Buprenorphine, Morphine, Anatabuse, etc.

There is much broader-based awareness/education as to the importance of a healthy lifestyle for mental health/substance use disorder improvement /recovery: healthy eating, physical activity, meditation, yoga, mindfulness.

There is continued development of new medications and evidence-based practices that make conditions such as depression highly treatable.

There is one place where I see mental health issues handled more effectively: that is in the arena of ADHD. Perhaps it is because it is addressed in schools, by teachers and academic programs, pediatricians, and only secondarily by behavioral health providers, it is handled in a more matter of fact manner with fewer judgments. Compared to other mental health diagnoses, people regularly acknowledge they have ADHD and seek to have the diagnosis confirmed so as to get certain school or workplace accommodations. People talk about having ADHD without shame and accept having to take stimulant medication.

What can the community do to help?

Keep talking about issues; don't hide them. Stigma can change. We will never be able to have workplaces that can accommodate people with mental health issues unless employers begin to have open and honest conversations about the work environment, how to manage job stress, etc. This is a complex challenge, but until people can talk about bipolar disorder the same way they talk about diabetes, cancer and asthma, people will not seek the help they need.


Sanjay Gupta, MD

Chief Medical Officer for Brylin Behavioral Health System.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

Access to consistent mental health and substance abuse care. There is a shortage of psychiatrists and other providers. The system is overburdened.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

I think some progress is being made, but a lot more needs to be done. The various agencies involved in care of patients need to have a coordinated effort. Clinical care needs to be better coordinated.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

Be supportive and encourage the person to get to treatment and continue treatment. Be nonjudgmental. Learn about the illness, which will help in being supportive.

Individuals can help themselves by being compliant with treatment and not distancing themselves from their supports. It is interesting to note, for example, that if a person breaks a leg, there are all kinds of individuals ready to help. However, when severe mental illness strikes, individuals often find themselves alone.

What can the community do to help?

Increase awareness through education and events. De-stigmatize addictions through the disease concept. Help individuals get more self sufficient rather than more dependent. Hire people with mental illnesses. Help individuals with mental illness with education and job training.


Howard Hitzel, PSY.D., MPA

President and CEO of Bestself Behavioral Health, Inc.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

The biggest issue facing our community is the lack of knowledge and understanding of mental illness and available treatments. Mental illnesses are very common: one in five people will experience a mental health problem in a given year. Yet it is estimated that just 41% will receive treatment. The result is often unnecessary suffering, which is not only problematic for the individual but can negatively affect children, spouses, families, and employers. Our community has many resources available to help people struggling with mental illnesses. Help is available and we need to encourage people to take advantage of it.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

I believe we are making progress. Treatment is more readily available than it was years ago. Most mental health clinics now offer same-day appointments when, in the past, people often had to wait days or weeks to see a mental health professional.

The treatments offered are effective, evidence-based and utilize interventions that are known to work. There has been an increase in available mobile services. In instances where a person is reluctant to go to a clinic, outreach workers can visit their home to educate and engage them in appropriate treatment services.

There is a greater emphasis on treating young people at the outset of their difficulties. Young people are becoming more open about their struggles and are more willing to seek out help.

There is much greater awareness of the importance of mental health to an individual’s overall wellbeing. We know people struggling with mental illnesses often also have untreated chronic physical health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Because they aren’t feeling emotionally well, these individuals often neglect their physical health, which leads to more serious health problems. Mental health services providers now take a more integrated approach that considers both mental and physical health issues. The goal is to help people achieve an improvement in their overall health.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

Share your concerns with them in a patient, caring manner. Considerable stigma is still often associated with mental illnesses and people are sometimes reluctant to admit they are having a problem. The onset of mental illness often happens subtlety and people may not be aware their behavior has changed or that others are noticing problems. Know where they can go for an initial evaluation or more information before talking to them.

People can help themselves by acknowledging they are having emotional difficulties. Often, individuals suffering from anxiety or depression are not aware they can benefit from education about and treatment for their symptoms. They suffer needlessly for years thinking there is no solution. Help is available and treatment is effective.

What can the community do to help?

Communities can help by simply acknowledging that mental illnesses are common and affect individuals and families regardless of race, age, culture, education or social status. People can be understanding and supportive of individuals they encounter in their lives who are struggling with a mental illness. We aspire to be a community that is well informed, understanding and supportive of those among us coping with a mental illness.


Jessica C. Pirro, LMSW

Chief Executive Officer at Crisis Services.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

The number of individuals with mental illness who are moving through the criminal justice system instead of the behavioral health system. It is important that we work to steer individuals to the behavioral health system to get the necessary care and treatment needed to help stabilize their mental illness.

Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

Yes. CIT, the Crisis Intervention Team training program administered by Crisis Services, is a best practice international model shown to have a critical impact on police response to mental health calls. Trained officers across Erie County are able to help individuals in crisis access the mental health system, versus being arrested.

How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?
 
Be present for them. Ask how they are doing. Ask what you can do to help. Call Crisis Services at 834-3131. Our hotline counselors provide supportive counseling, immediate intervention, suicide assessment and linkage to community wide counseling and treatment resources. If someone is suicidal or in a mental health crisis, our counselors can assist with connecting to our Mobile Outreach Team for immediate intervention support and evaluation. It is important to know you can call for yourself, or on behalf of somebody in need.

Erie County has a robust mental health system. Counseling/treatment services can be accessed at dozens of locations around Erie County. Crisis Services counselors can help you find the right resource and begin successful treatment and success living with your mental illness.

What can the community do to help?

Become aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health and suicide. There are various trainings such as Mental Health First Aid or suicide awareness courses like QRP (Question, Persuade and Referral) or ASFP’s Talk Saves Lives™ presentation that can help you become more aware and confident to talk to and assist a friend or a loved one with mental illness.

Local support organizations are always in need of financial support—consider donating to a local mental health support agency such as Crisis Services. The community’s investment in our mission will ensure we can continue to be present for those in crisis, 24 hours a day.

Volunteering at Crisis Service or another support agency is a great way to invest in community agencies with your time and talent to help those in need.


Karl Shallowhorn

Education Program Coordinator for the Community Health Center of Buffalo.

What is the biggest mental health issue facing our community right now, from your perspective?

I believe the biggest mental health issue facing our community is access to care. Only 40% of those living with mental health conditions are getting treatment. There are several contributing factors: stigma, lack of behavioral health providers, and long-term care. Because of public perceptions and stigma, many are afraid to seek help, and even if they do, they are met with a system that is confusing. There is also a lack of child psychiatrists to serve our youth who could benefit most from early intervention.

 Is there progress being made? What can we look forward to?

There is progress being made. There is so much more awareness about mental health nowadays. It’s everywhere you look, in particular in social and traditional media. Also, the recently enacted Mental Health Education Law, which mandates New York State school districts to incorporate mental health into their curriculum, is a huge game changer. It is the first of its kind in the country. By educating our youth about the facts of mental health, my hope is that future generations will be healthier.

We can look forward to continued education around mental health in schools as well as expanded services in our local districts. Say Yes Buffalo now works to help provide mental health services to nearly 60 of the schools in the district. Also, Buffalo and other outlying districts, such as Niagara Falls, Cheektowaga and Hamburg, have incorporated Youth Mental Health First Aid training for their faculty and staff.

 How can people help when they suspect a loved one has a mental health issue? How can people help themselves?

There are a number of things one can do. The first is to assess if the person is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else. Then, listen to the person and don’t judge them because of something that is not their doing. Try to empathize with the person and give them hope, one of the most essential elements in recovery. You can also steer them to resources in the area.

One of the most important things people can do to help themselves is to simply ask for help. Recovery isn’t done in a vacuum; we all need help from time to time.

What can the community do to help?

The community can help by becoming more accepting of those living with mental health conditions. One out of five people lives with a diagnosable mental illness. If people were more aware of the prevalence of these conditions, maybe they would be more sensitive.

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