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30 percent have mental illness

Mental illness has a face in Island County. It has many faces.

Approximately 30 percent of the county’s population has a diagnosed mental illness, according to the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Those affected represent an overwhelmingly large and stigmatized component of local communities that cannot be ignored.

A cross section of more than 50 stakeholders gathered Monday afternoon, Oct. 22, in Oak Harbor to face mental health issues head-on, working collectively to fill in service and treatment gaps and formulate concrete plans for addressing prevention of mental illness.

Sponsored by the United Way of Island County, the mental health forum panel featured Stan Baxter, director of Compass Health for Island County; Sheriff Mark Brown, Barbara and City Councilman Larry Eaton, Julie Johnson, Northwest Regional Council care management director; Bess Windecker-Nelson, and Jackie Henderson, Island County Health Department human services director.

After the state code was changed to allow for a local optional sales tax hike of one-tenth of one percent to generate funds used exclusively for chemical dependency and mental health services, Henderson and Mike Merringer, Island County’s administrator for Juvenile and Family Court Services, formed a task force and formulated the Mental Health Initiative.

The Board of Island County Commissioners approved the sales tax increase in August, only the seventh county in the state to take the step. Henderson told the mental health forum attendees that she was overwhelmed by the support generated by the initiative.

“There were over 100 people at the July hearing,” she said. “It was such an encouragement to us.”

The nominal jump in taxes could bring in an estimated $900,000 to $1 million in 2008. In 2006 the tax would have netted $877,000 in Island County. Collection of the funds will begin next year and after a few months of allowing the pool to accumulate, a battery of programs are slated for implemented in April 2008.

Henderson described the therapeutic drug court program to the rapt audience. Using special calendars or dockets, the court is designed for the intense judicial supervision, coordination and oversight of treatment provided to parents and families who have substance abuse or mental health problems, and who are involved in dependency proceedings.

The courts have been very successful in reducing child abuse and neglect, out-of-home placement of children, termination of parental rights and substance abuse or mental health symptoms among parents or guardians and their children.

In addition to therapeutic court, the sales tax funds will help enhance the county’s adult and juvenile drug courts, the latter of which are courts Henderson likened to “watching a work of art.”

Henderson said the three programs alone would benefit taxpayers to the tune of more than $350,000 a year.

Of the 30 percent of Island County diagnosed with mental illness, 10 percent of that sub-population, roughly 2,300 people, do not have medical insurance, the human services director said.

“We had a gap before,” Henderson said. “That crack is now a huge hole.”

Depression alone accounts for an economic burden of over $21 million annual in Island County. And depression is a problem for children up through senior citizens.

Mental health millage funds pay for a part-time mental health professional in each of the county’s four school districts. The new funds will increase the hours to full-time. Henderson said two of the districts have already requested a second specialist to help deal with the need.

“We’re seeing a lack of hope with kids,” she added. “They’re not looking forward to the future.”

Senior and vulnerable adult outreach programs will be a further service augmented by the money.

“Many of these seniors need services but they don’t want services,” Henderson said.

Ten percent of the 8 million alcoholics in the United States are seniors, she continued, often suffering from severe depression. When alcohol and prescription medications are mixed, the I-COM dispatchers often hear from the members of the demographic.

“They call 911 a lot,” Henderson said. “This outreach will be there to help people no matter how much money they have. We’ll really get to know the person and get them hooked up with the most appropriate service.”

Older caregivers also suffer from depression.

“We’re hoping to get to some of these folks,” Henderson added.

The situations in the county jail and juvenile detention center are equally dire. Forty to 80 percent of jail inmates have a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, and 20 percent of those have a severe mental illness.

Expanding the mental health services at the jail and juvenile detention center would provide crisis counseling, mental health assessments and treatment, and referral services. The program would serve 10 individuals a week in the jail and between one and two in the detention center.

Finally, the funds will help improve access to mental health consultation specifically for children in the form of an Early Childhood Mental Health Program. The program would provide services to several hundred individuals, families and service providers.

Cathy Niiro, United of Island County executive director, said Monday’s forum, the first of its kind, was a resounding success.

“We went around the room and each person spoke,” she said. “It was a wonderful process to see happening. We were trying to cover all four bases so we could hear from each community represented at the forum.”

Three specific areas of focus emerged from the discussions: Housing needs for people with mental illness, community education to foster understanding of the illness and early childhood support.

Action teams of 10 to 12 members were formed to scrutinize each issue. Niiro said progress of the action teams will go hand-in-hand with the programs scheduled to begin next year.

“People are so eager to help,” she said. “This is going to enhance the work and funding that’s going to be part of the mental health initiative administered by the Island County Health Department one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax.”

Cohesiveness, forward thinking and invaluable networking punctuated the forum, which Niiro saw as a decided step in the right direction.

“The forum showed us that stakeholders can develop relationships and strategies to change community conditions,” she said. “I want to especially thank those in attendance that have signed on to the action teams. This was a great group of people who came together that want to make a lasting change in our community around mental health.”

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