15 Finds Out: Group works to improve mental health care access

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – One in five adults will experience some kind of mental health issue this year and one in 25 lives with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. But, stigma and a confusing health care system are keeping a lot of people from the care they need.

“The average diagnosis and treatment of a mental illness takes eight years. We can’t go on like that,” Marcia Haaff, the CEO of The Lutheran Foundation, said.

The foundation, along with the VA and Parkview Behavioral Health, collaborated to create the Mental Health Messaging Group. The task force is trying to stop the mental illness stigma and streamline access to care.

“How do we talk about the importance of mental and emotional wellness just like we talk about cancer or diabetes. That’s the dialogue we have to get to,” Haaff said.

Marcia Haaff
Marcia Haaff

Getting there won’t be easy. The stigma of mental illness still stops a lot of people from seeking treatment.

“I have people tell me, ‘I’d rather have my doctor diagnose me with a torn ligament or even a melanoma than bipolar disorder’ because you can’t see it. You can see a torn ligament. You can see a broken leg. You can’t see schizophrenia,” Dr. Stephen Ross, a clinical and forensic psychologist, said.

Connie Kerrigan, the director of outreach at Parkview Behavioral Health, said there are a lot of misunderstandings with mental illness.

Connie Kerrigan
Connie Kerrigan

“[People think] that it’s someone’s choice or their behavior, but it is a physical brain dysfunction,” she said. “So many people are scared of mental health. It just sounds scary. When you start talking about that,  you think someone did something wrong or someone must have harmed someone in some way, but it’s really just a disruption in the way you think. It’s a brain dysfunction and we need to look at it that way and really starting to talk about how to help people get the resources and the help that they need.”

Click here for mental health care agencies in northeast Indiana.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to acknowledging that mental health is just like any other illness,” Haaff said.

Part of undoing the stigma is making it okay to talk about mental illness.

“We’re all affected by it and we need to be better at understanding it and accepting it as a normal course of our life,” Lisa Smith, the executive director of Mental Health America in Allen County, said.

“Wouldn’t it be great if I could have an open conversation with you and say, ‘Last week I had so many panic attacks. I didn’t know what to do, but I have support now.’ What if you could say, ‘I was depressed.’ Not that I was sad, but that I couldn’t get out of bed for days,” Haaff said. “Wouldn’t it be great if when you went to your physician’s office, they take your blood pressure and weigh you and ask you questions like, ‘Where you anxious last week? Were you depressed? How’d you feel the last 30 days? Have you had significant events in your life? Get a divorce? Lose a job? Did a child go away to college?'”

Mental health care experts tell 15 Finds Out the problem is twofold. Not only are patients and their families combating stigma, they’re facing a fragmented health care system.

“We talk about it being in silos. We have wonderful resources in our community, but it’s knowing how to access those resources and how do you not let stigma get in the way of accessing those resources,” Haaff said.

That’s where a new navigation website comes in.

“It wasn’t clear who was providing what and who should refer to where and all those kinds of things. We decided we’d dedicate our time and energy there first,” Haaff said.

‘Look Up Indiana’ is still being developed, but it will be one place for people who are suffering from addiction and mental health issues to turn for an easy way to find all the agencies that are available and what services they offer.

“Often times people just don’t know where to turn for that next step in the process,” Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan and Haaff both suggest a good place to start is talking to your primary care physician. Parkview also has a 24/7 phone number people can call: (800) 284-8439. 

Click here to take online mental health screenings and click here for an online stress test.

“We need to talk about those things. We’re not used to talking about our feelings. We’re used to talking about our pain, I mean our physical pain. There’s mental pain too,” Haaff said.

Ultimately, better access to care and stopping the stigma can lead to saving lives. It’s estimated 86 people in America commit suicide every day.

“We can’t save everybody, but a better general awareness [will help]. Often there are statements before someone ends their life that people think that was a weird statement. Most people don’t know you can talk about suicide,” Ted Coburn, president of the Fort Wayne National Alliance on Mental Illness, said.

Kerrigan’s message to the community is that there is hope.

“Just because someone is struggling around mental health or the addiction realm, they don’t need to suffer in silence and there is hope and we can help them get to the level of life they should be living and deserve to live,” she said.

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