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Experts: Support key to treating mental illness

Patience and empathy are bedrock of programs

By Zach Murdock
zach.murdock@heraldtribune.com
March 18, 2017

SARASOTA — Treating those with mental illness is incredibly complicated yet very, very simple, a panel of local experts agreed on Friday night.

The tie that binds jail diversion programs to supportive housing to employment training to family counseling services is that support, patience and empathy that are the bedrock of the more nuanced and sophisticated programs available to those with a mental illness, the experts agreed.

“I hear a common thread here and it is all about recovery through self-esteem,” said Wendy Abramson, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I really do feel that one of the most important keys for success when you have a mental illness is having some part of yourself that you’re proud of and have good self-esteem.”

Abramson was one of four experts exploring “Solutions for Sarasota” at the latest in a series of forum discussions as part of the Herald-Tribune’s ongoing FACEing Mental Illness project.

More than 75 people heard from the panel that also included 12th Circuit Court Judge Erika Quartermaine, who spearheaded the new Comprehensive Treatment Court jail diversion program; Scott Eller, CEO of Community Assisted and Supported Living, known as CASL; and William McKeever, executive director of the Vincent House in Pinellas County and the soon-to-open Vincent Academy in Sarasota, which coordinates “recovery through work” programs.

Each of the experts leads one of the programs on the spectrum of needs experienced by those with mental illnesses and their families. But while each has certain strengths, each relies on the other programs for help using their strengths, they said.

The same is true for the multitude of programs across the area, the panel agreed.

“The common thread is support,” Eller said. “Even in the Comprehensive Treatment Court, the judge is being supportive. We’re helping people live life and … become more and more independent.”

Despite demonstrable progress over the past several years, there is much work left to be done to better coordinate and implement that spectrum of services in Sarasota, the panel agreed.

A specific plan to help set an initial framework for that will be unveiled next week.

Leaders from every facet of the nonprofit, law enforcement and government worlds that deal with mental illness shut themselves in a room for two days in February as part of the grant process that helps fund the new Comprehensive Treatment Court, which launched at the beginning of March.

The result is called sequential intercept mapping, which illustrates at what points persons with mental illness can be diverted from the criminal justice system to support services — from first contact with a police officer to cycling through the court system to jail recovery andemployment.

The mapping can help stem the revolving door of offenders with mental illness, who commonly also struggle with homelessness, to connect them with the local programs available to help them manage their illness and stabilize their lives, Quartermaine said.

Pick up where that leaves off and those individuals need varying types of assisted living, which is where CASL comes in, Eller said. CASL works with thecounty and city to offer housing, case workers’ support and help finding other services.

McKeever’s services can pick up even from there, helping to train and place those managing a mental illness with employment and wages, he said. The Sarasota location, Vincent Academy, is expected to open in May and will help 50 to 60 members find employment, he said.

“We don’t want to create these cycles of dependencywhere people are perpetual patients,” he said. “Our motto is a big door and a big door out.”

Those living with mental illness and their families also need support and help navigating these resources along that entire journey, a task Abramson’s group tackles with specific lists of resources alongside peer and family training courses, she said.

Altogether, the panelists’ programs and their efforts to synchronize the often-fragmented services in place are creating a more efficient, empathetic and eventually successful system. But they need advocates pushing for more funding and attention from policymakers locally, in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C., they agreed.

Quartermaine recalled one man who appeared before her in court not long ago who had been sleeping in a park repeatedly and arrested, insisting the case go to trial. One prospective juror rudely lamented it was a “waste of time” and he had obviously broken the law.

But at the trial it became obvious the man was homeless, paranoid and nearly deaf.

Quartermaine sentenced him to the mental health court and with the help of several programs he now has hearing aids, housing with CASL and a job.

“He came into court on Monday and was so happy and totally a different person,” she said. “He said, ‘Can I not come to court so much? I want to work more.’ “What seemed like a such a simple issue — a homeless man sleeping in a park — was all of our complicated forces in this world balled up into one” contact with police, she continued. “At first blush you (the juror) would say, ‘This is so simple, why are we here? This guy is sleeping in a park.’ But when you crack the shell, it was this huge example of what we deal with in our society — how vulnerable and complicated people are.”

To see the original Herald-Tribune article, complete with photos, click here.

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