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Mental Health Awareness

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Western New York's mental health crisis

Nationally, the statistics are alarming: approximately one in five adults experience a mental illness each year, but less than 40 percent seek care.

One person dies by suicide every five hours, and for every suicide there are 25 attempts. Fifty percent of individuals suffering from mental illness also struggle with substance abuse, and vice versa. People with serious mental illness often die 25 years earlier than those without because they haven’t sought medical treatment.

So how does Western New York stack up?

“Our numbers are consistent in comparison,” says Michael R. Ranney, CRC-R, LMHC, Erie County Commissioner of Mental Health. “Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are the most common, and we regularly see these issues arise in early youth. Other vulnerable groups include middle-aged white men, veterans and the elderly, but no one is immune.

“We are making progress in terms of lessening the stigma and educating the public about triggers and symptoms and how to navigate the system to get proper care and treatment,” says Ranney.

Across Western New York, Ranney says there are major efforts to improve access to help on an outpatient level. Many agencies now have walk-in clinics and/or same-day appointments. More primary care physicians are using best practices to screen patients for mental health issues and suicidal tendencies.

“We’ve developed a strong relationship with our state partners, such as the Office of Mental Health, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services and the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities,” says Ranney. “That has resulted in increased programming for mental health education and resources in Erie County. There are programs now in place in schools and for first responders that will help tremendously.”

In many cases, the first contact a person with mental illness has with the system is through the police, and they end up going to jail rather than getting the help they need. The Buffalo Police Department and other police jurisdictions are involved in a voluntary Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training program aimed at educating first responders as to the signs and symptoms of mental illness and available services for those in need.

Captain Amber M. Beyer, Buffalo Police Department Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator, serves as the Department’s liaison with area mental health providers. “We’ve strengthened the partnership between law enforcement and providers so as to hopefully divert more people from emergency rooms and jail into resources in the community that can help them.

“It’s making a difference,” says Beyer. “Our officers are more confident in responding to those suffering with mental illness and can now make a more informed decision as to whether someone should be sent to jail, the hospital or another community resource.”

In July, New York became the first state to pass a law mandating mental health as part of health education in elementary, middle and high schools.

The goal is to decrease stigma, change attitudes and provide students with the knowledge to recognize signs and symptoms. Ranney calls the new laws and programs game changers. “Education will not only go a long way in helping those with mental health issues to not suffer in silence and to seek treatment, but also to curb the negative feelings and the shame and create awareness and provide knowledge,” he says. “Because mental health isn’t just mental illness, it’s also mental wellness.”

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