As mental health woes widen, getting care can mean waiting in crisis, Allentown panel says
Buttons bearing the word stigma with a red line through it lay scattered around tables set up for a discussion Friday afternoon on mental health care, hosted by Muhlenberg College for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, other elected officials and patients and caregivers.
But stigma isn't the only obstacle to getting treatment for a growing segment of the population in need of mental health treatment.
"I would say that access is sometimes bigger than stigma in that people are reaching out," said Jody McCloud-Missmer, behavioral health administrator for St. Luke's University Health Network. "But when you're denied that -- sometimes you have to catch that person at that time."
McCloud-Missmer spoke of a nine-month wait for a general adult appointment with a psychiatrist. Mike Slack, CEO of KidsPeace, said the wait can be six months for the children and adolescents his agency works with.
Wolf was joined at the discussion by U.S. Rep. Susan Wild and state Reps. Mike Schlossberg, Pete Schweyer, Jeanne McNeill and Steve Samuelson, along with Dr. Rachel Levine, the state health secretary and more than a dozen others.
It was described as the first of several roundtable discussions on mental health planned around Pennsylvania, and it came one day after Wolf introduced “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” -- a campaign aimed at expanding treatment and support resources.
The shortage of mental health professionals can be pinned on a number of reasons, said Wild, a Democrat like Wolf whose 7th Congressional District in Pennsylvania covers Lehigh, Northampton and southern Monroe counties. Students pursuing medical careers can find more lucrative jobs in other fields, while becoming a mental health professional still requires extensive education and the potential to incur hefty student loan debt, Wild said. Insurance reimbursement becomes an issue in mental health care, those gathered Friday stressed.
“It’s not like getting cancer treatment,” said Wild, whose life partner, Kerry Acker, died by suicide last spring at age 63. “It’s almost viewed as an optional service.”
Untreated, mental illness like depression can be fatal, said McCloud-Missmer, from St. Luke’s.
“We save lives every day, but it doesn’t get the surgeon’s skilled hands’ recognition,” she said. “And not that we look for that.”
Christy Dunbar, of Macungie, shared her story of seeking mental health treatment, as she does regularly in visits with patients and as a peer-to-peer educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Lehigh Valley.
"As someone who is diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions, there is nothing more disheartening than finally getting the courage to seek help and then being told that your insurance doesn't cover it or that you have to wait nine months," Dunbar said. "And people who are reaching out are in crisis and they don't have nine months to wait."
She was a teacher for 17 years, but after revealing her diagnosis, she said she lost her job. Jeremy Warmkessel, president of the Allentown firefighters' union, echoed those concerns about stigma and workplace protections against mental health discrimination. Workers' compensation insurance might not cover care for mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder that can arise in a job in emergency services, because they're seen as coming with the territory, he said.
Dunbar got her career back, and also teaches at Northampton Community College in addition to her position with NAMI. A success story like hers can go a long way toward helping someone in the throes of a mental disorder, she said.
"One thing that doesn't discriminate is mental health," Dunbar said. "I see everyone, professionals and people who have been through the criminal justice system ... all ages, all in the same place. But the one thing that I hear is it was so helpful for them to see someone doing well with a mental health condition."
NAMI offers inspirational videos of mental illness survivors at nami-lv.org. Among those who have shot one is Schlossberg, the Lehigh County Democrat who helped lead Friday’s discussion. He was a freshman at Muhlenberg in January 2002 when he came as close as he’s ever come to committing suicide, before his girlfriend at the time intervened and he was able to continue care offered by the college.
Schlossberg still suffers from depression and anxiety, he said.
"But regular therapy, self-care and medication allow me to lead a wonderful life," he said. "Our job must be to ensure that every single Pennsylvania resident who is searching for hope, for treatment, for love and for a better life can find it. And that is why we are here today."
For many students and their families, school might be their only link to care, said Allentown schools Superintendent Thomas Parker. But even that can be jeopardized by budget problems that have cost his district all of its in-school social workers.
"When people begin to reduce workforce or restrict their budget, those are some of the things that go away first," said Parker, who described an increase in students seeking assistance each year from 750 seven years ago to over 3,000 today.
Tim Silvestri, director of counseling services at Muhlenberg, and Dr. Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, both spoke of the need for diversity in the mental health caregiver community, so people in need can be comfortable seeking help.
Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong mentioned a new initiative aimed at connecting people with care in the county's public defenders' office, where a social worker is budgeted for 2020 and set to begin working next week.
Other routes to connect those in need to care include a push for a nationwide suicide prevention hotline accessible by simply dialing 988 and Mental Health First Aid training to help introduce average people to helping people in crisis and avoid escalating the situation. For students in crisis, Pennsylvania’s new Safe 2 Say Something initiative can speed assistance to their door.
Wolf opened Friday’s discussion by saying mental illness needs to be addressed by every avenue possible, and he acknowledged that Friday’s discussion was bound to open up more questions than answers.
“The things we ought to be doing that we’re not doing, we need to know that,” he said.