Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mental Health Morning

This morning I was up at o'dark thirty to attend a meeting about community mental health issues.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in this area, but my work with local service agencies and the low-income population tells me that we have a) a high proportion of people with mental health problems, and b) significant gaps in access to mental health services.  So, today we got a variety of providers, government officials, prisoner reentry workers, and assorted other interested parties in the same room and talking about the problems and how we might improve the system.

I didn't really have anything to say, frankly.  But I did learn a lot about how things work (or don't) from different angles.  The prison people say that every prisoner with mental health problems is released with an appointment, scripts for necessary medications, and either Medicaid or a temporary card to pay for the medications.  The free clinic people say they get calls all the time about released prisoners who have no scripts, or they have their scripts but have no money/Medicaid/temporary card.  Somewhere in there, something is going awry.  And then there is children's mental health.  One woman, who works with infants and toddlers (!) says that they checked several four year olds into in-patient mental health facilities this year.  FOUR YEAR OLDS.  What in the world are we doing to our children to traumatize them so much that they need in-patient mental health services at FOUR???  We didn't even mention adolescents today, which is in my mind a huge community issue, as we've had strings of teen suicides and violence.

The fact is that I have no idea how to reform the whole mental health system to serve everyone effectively.  Much like health care as a whole, it's an intricate web of needs and provisions, pathways and obstacles, problems that the system itself has created in an attempt to help, and of course, cracks through which people are constantly falling.  I think single-payer health care would help a lot of these problems, but it would almost certainly create others.

One of the things that struck me about this meeting is that I was the only representative from a faith community.  I only knew about the meeting because one of my parishioners thought I might be interested.  Faith communities are not seen as stakeholders in the mental health situation in our city.  We're not seen as a potential resource, or even as interested parties.  That has held true in nearly every gathering around community problems/improvements that I have heard of or attended in my three plus years here.  My church has gotten a reputation for being more involved than most, and it's part of my job to be present at this sort of thing, but I still get strange looks when I introduce myself, as if people are wondering why a minister would care, or why a church would be interested.  Often the assumption is that we have an ulterior motive; perhaps I'm trying to infiltrate the mental health field so that I can brainwash needy people into coming to my church?

It saddens me to realize that the church is so often seen as either apathetic or self-centered.  It's strange to spend so much of my time explaining to people that we are not trying to proselytize, recruit, convert, or take over (although we are happy to share some good news and will welcome anyone who happens to want to stop by on Sunday).  We just want to help.  We live here too, and we happen to have a lot of people and resources that could be mobilized.  But to do that, we have to overcome a lot of distrust and suspicion - and sometimes the simple assumption that we won't care.  Because too often the church has not even known about the released prisoner trying to reorient to society, or the teenager taking out depression through gang activity, or the four year old so traumatized that hospitalization is necessary.

I really want to make a series of snarky comments right now about being too busy worrying about where the flowers go on Sunday morning and other such crucial things, but it's almost too easy.  It's just a real pity that we've made it so easy for those who deal with some of the deepest and most complicated problems in our society to completely forget about our existence.  

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