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Archive for Sunday, March 24, 1996

WORKING TO STAMP OUT THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS

March 24, 1996

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Mental illness.

Two short, simple words long on complexity.

Ray Davis, president of the board of directors at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, is among hundreds of local activists helping Douglas County residents set stereotype aside so they can understand mental illness.

"We don't talk about mental health problems like we talk about having an appendix out," he said. "There is a stigma that needs to be overcome."

May is national Mental Health Month -- an opportune time to jettison phobia about mental disorders. After all, mental health is everyone's business. It affects family members and colleagues at work.

"Talking openly and candidly during education month is important," Davis said. "The more people that get close to it the better."

Sandra Shaw, Bert Nash's chief executive officer, said the general level of knowledge regarding mental health issues was low.

Many people are surprised to learn that mental health problems are as prevalent as other major health woes, she said.

"Like other problems, the earlier they get appropriate help the better off they are," Shaw said.

Here are mind-numbing mental health statistics:

  • Forty-eight percent of Americans between ages 15 and 54 have experienced at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.
  • Depression is the country's third most common health problem, affecting 17.6 million people annually. Up to 80 percent of patients benefit from treatment.
  • It's estimated that 35,000 Kansas children and adolescents have severe emotional disturbances, while fewer than 6,500 have been identified by social service, education and mental health agencies.

Bert Nash is a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive mental health services in Douglas County. It operates offices in Lawrence, Baldwin and Eudora.

"We've been able to survive almost 50 years with the enthusiastic support of volunteers like Ray Davis," Shaw said.

On average, the center's staff admit 1,800 to 2,000 patients a year. The client list has grown with the county's population. In addition, volume has risen as evidence surfaced that early intervention with the mentally ill reduced demand and cost of medical needs later.

For example, a person may drink to excess because of depression. That alcohol consumption can result in high medical bills down the road.

"What research tells us is that there is a very strong relationship between physical health and mental health. To be aware of and cultivate one's mental health is to cultivate one's overall health status," Shaw said.

About 30 percent of clients at Bert Nash are under age 18.

"There are a lot of activities with children," Davis said. "That's especially important to me. There's an investment of time and resources to try to assure those kids don't have serious problems."

Warning signs of mental illness among youth include a drop in school performance, increased anxiety, inability to cope with daily problems, aggression, excessive fear of getting fat and talk of death or suicide.

In the workplace, symptoms include decreased productivity, sagging morale, lack of cooperation, absenteeism, accidents, irritability, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Overall, Shaw said that 65 percent of Bert Nash clients were served in 10 or fewer sessions.

"They get what the need and move on," she said.

Getting involved with Bert Nash was painless for Davis.

He was invited to join the board after delivering a speech on evolution of the health care industry about eight years ago to Bert Nash staff.

"It's a real honor to be with Bert Nash," said Davis, chair of KU's health administration department. "It's a privilege to serve people in need."

On the board, Davis leads policy and budget development for the agency. Funding comes from service contracts as well as city, county, state and federal governments.

He said greater demand for community mental health facilities in Kansas posed challenges for facilities like Bert Nash.

"It offers us new opportunities," Davis said. "It won't come easily. We'll need more resources -- money and volunteers."

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