As a mental health professional I often find myself confused, frustrated, and overwhelmed by the mental health needs of our youth today. Even with a few years of education and career experience under my belt, I still feel lost for words when a parent describes the grueling process of seeking services for her child. I find myself inwardly say a prayer in hopes that she will find her way. If I have the opportunity to be close enough to reach that person, I will. I almost “flood” a parent with resources and direction. My ultimate goal has been to offer the direction I see so many families without. I have been close enough to families to see the frustration and pain inherent in not knowing where to turn, feeling alone, and maybe even cursed. Within my own family, confusion arose at an earth shattering circumstance of a loved one and no one knew where to turn.
The search for support was undermined by the strong emotions attached to the loss. I can only imagine how families of a loved one with severe mental illness feel. Whether it’s coping with the death of a loved one with a mental illness or receiving an unfavorable mental health diagnosis, many people are often too depressed to research their options. Sometimes they just don’t have the words to say or know what questions to ask. In severe cases, families get strung along through the mental health system hoping that someone would finally help them. What these families are often unaware of is that many mental health professionals are at the mercy of their own level of knowledge. In other words, many times mental health professionals, while quite skilled, engage in much hypothesis testing, posing questions to superiors, and scratching their heads at confusing data. In less severe cases, a mental illness can be easy to identify, but difficult to treat. In other circumstances, the right services are often not affordable, funded, or simply unavailable.
Many families have been turned away because there weren’t “enough beds” or that person didn’t have insurance. Some people simply aren’t “severe enough” to be admitted even though that person may be hallucinating or a family fears for their life. The interpretation of most families is that “I have to let my kid (or family member) threaten suicide or homicide to have them admitted?” Hospitals often say “come back to us when your loved one is on the verge of barely surviving.” Heartless? Cruel? Irresponsible? Yes indeed. Thankfully there are advocates who are serious about changing this structural confusion. To name a few: The Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Active Minds. There are times I wonder if the real “professionals” are those who have experienced a deep feeling of confusion about the field or experience the flaws of the system on a personal level. When things get close, we get real. It’s an unfortunate and sad reality. But it is also a reality that has inspired advocates to speak out against it.
Even with advocates, it is important we know where to turn for help. A parent of a former client of mine had a very difficult time accessing the appropriate resources to transfer her daughter from a school known for violence. She visited every mental health coordinator in the city she knew, but did not know that the appropriate resources were an email and phone call away. There are a few general things I believe you can do to help yourself locate appropriate resources:
- Research everything: Become knowledgeable about mental health and how its “treated” in your state. Each state is different and laws dictate who gets treatment, when, and why. In the state of PA, an individual cannot be involuntarily admitted to a hospital against his/her will if the individual has not threatened the life of others or himself, even if he/she is hallucinating, unable to care for basic needs, is homeless, or in a state of severe confusion. Knowledge truly is power. Become connected with someone who understands the system so that you can gain further knowledge. The best suggestion I could give you is to gain knowledge on your own. Would you attempt to drive a car without adjusting the mirrors? No. Don’t attempt to tackle the mental health field without researching it first.
- Find emotional support: When caring for a loved one with a mental health condition, it is important to speak to others sometimes for suggestions or emotional support. Try the national New Life Live radio broadcast at 1-800-New-LIFE or 639-5433.
- Seek out legal advocacy: AOT is court-ordered treatment (including medication) that is available in 44 states. It is often utilized with individuals who have a history of medication noncompliance. AOT is for individuals with severe mental illness who require strict maintenance. Many families advocate for the implementation of this system in their state or region.
- Research your library: Utilize that library card that you’ve tossed in the corner. Local libraries have resources in social services that can give you direction. If you dig a little deeper, you can request professional books and articles through your ILL (Interlibrary Loan) service.
- Google what you need to know: Set up Google alerts regarding mental health reform, law changes, or local mental health news. www.google.com/alerts.
- Sign up with local organizations: My Pennsylvania Psychological Association offers membership for a small fee to people outside the field. They send monthly newsletters and keep you informed about workshops or free classes for families.
- Make your case manager work: In some of my previous cases as a therapist, I had to act as a child’s case worker. Many times parents are either uninformed about the benefits of case workers or believe they cannot help them as much as a therapist can. Find out who your case manager is and make them work for you. They have resources everywhere!
- Call around for clarification: HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is difficult for most people to understand. Go to http://www.naic.org/documents/consumer_hipaareps.pdf to find local State Insurance Department contacts.
Although help seems scarce and many holes in the system prevent families from getting proper treatment, there are ways you can protect your loved one. Unfortunately you will have to learn how to swim through the sea of confusion to get the services that should be right at your doorstep.