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Fighting the stigma of mental illnesses

The stigma of mental health can be found throughout our community.

It’s in our homes, where individuals and families grapple with the discomfort of revealing depression and other illnesses, then attempt to navigate a confusing and challenging system of care.

It’s in our emergency rooms and jails, which too often are the landing places for people with mental health issues, and where staffs are sometimes ill-equipped and uncomfortable with the patients who desperately need help.

It’s in the halls of local and state government, where money for mental health is lacking and often one of the first items to be cut in the face of budget difficulties.

The breakdown of mental health care in North Carolina is not new, but it’s growing. Some statistics, from an Observer investigation this month: 1.4 million North Carolinians need some form of behavioral care. Emergency room visits by mental health patients has jumped 38 percent from 2008-2011. Those patients are staying an astounding average of 16 hours in an emergency room, in part because there’s a shortage of psychiatrists, specialized care, and beds in psychiatric facilities.

The problem, on the surface, is tied to money. Despite the increase in mental health patients, the $700 million budget of the state Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services is about $50 million less than it was five years ago, according to the Observer’s investigation. That budget shortfall exists at the local level, too. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which before 2009 had at least one psychologist at every school, now has one psychologist serving two to three schools.

But underlying all of these issues is the stigma. Mental health awareness has improved, but mental illnesses still often come attached with shame. People are reluctant to tell their bosses they need time off for therapy. Some still hide mental health issues from family members. Such private discomfort is a roadblock to effective treatment, and the accompanying public discomfort leads to mental health not receiving the attention and funding it deserves.

There are signs of improvement in Mecklenburg. Both of Charlotte’s major hospital chains are expanding their mental health footprints, the Observer reports, and the county has just launched MeckLINK – a Managed Care Organization with a $280 million budget and 400 providers. MeckLINK joins a network of state MCOs organized in part by a 2011 state mental healthcare reform law.

Here’s another step: On Monday night, the Observer is hosting a forum on the challenges of delivering crisis care to the mentally ill. Community leaders including police Chief Rodney Monroe and MeckLINK Director Phil Endress will attend, as will experts from Urban Ministry Center, Mental Health Association of Central Carolinas and other agencies and organizations.

It’s a chance to learn more about mental illness and our community. It’s a conversation, small but important, that can help chip away at a stigma that hurts us all.

The “Solving it Together” public forum on mental health will be held from 7-9 p.m. Monday at the UNCC Center City Building, 320 E. Ninth St., Charlotte. The event is free but registration is required at charlotteobserver.com/health.
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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