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Breaking the silence on mental illness

If everything is cruising along fairly well in your life, it’s easy not to realize that there are thousands of people in the Charlotte region, and hundreds of thousands in North Carolina, suffering from mental illness.

Their already-challenging circumstances are made that much harder by the silence that generally surrounds the issue. In their private lives, a stigma attached to their condition can make it harder for them to find help. In public life, politicians and policymakers tend to put mental health care several notches below more prominent issues on their list of to-dos.

So when the Observer and PNC Bank played host to a community forum on the topic Monday night, hundreds of advocates and patients braved bad weather to attend. One said she had been in bed for three days wrestling with her depression, and it took everything she had to come out. She and others were grateful the topic was getting any public attention at all, and craved the discussion like people in a desert stumbling toward a dripping faucet.

Now, let’s hope the concern and determination expressed by experts and policymakers at Monday’s forum was not just a mirage. Because the problem is very real, as illustrated by the stories told there.

Like the one about the 12-year-old N.C. girl who lay in a medical emergency room for 6 1/2 days waiting for mental health treatment. She didn’t get a bed until she called 911 herself and demanded a ride to Butner. Or the one about the five children who were sitting in the ER at that very moment, needing health treatment but with no beds available at Presbyterian Hospital.

“It is a bona fide crisis,” Dr. Roger Ray, chief medical officer at Carolinas HealthCare System, told the crowd. “The shortages are extreme and therefore the stories that emerge from that are at a minimum frustrating and confusing and at a maximum tragic. And they’re easy to find.”

Added Dr. Greg Clary, head of psychiatry at Presbyterian: “The child situation is, quite honestly, a disaster.”

Many in the crowd told us they need help but are stymied by the current system, frustrated and scared. One advocate told us that “crisis should be a portal to long-term care, but it’s not.”

It’s a complex problem with no easy answers. But ideas emerged Monday that could each be pieces that complete the puzzle, and that policymakers should explore. Among them:

• Expand training for Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers on how to handle suspects who may be mentally ill.

• Provide more behavioral health specialists to the public schools, where a shortage makes it difficult to help children consistently.

• Create an IT system like South Carolina’s that allows agencies to easily share information about mentally ill patients or criminal suspects.

• Establish a 24/7 crisis center where police can take individuals to be assessed and helped. That can be a better alternative than jail or the ER, where they are often taken now before being put back on the street.

Several people pointed out Monday that you can’t drive across Charlotte on a typical weekend without encountering a race or other charity event for cancer or other medical illnesses. But mental illness? There, philanthropy is scarce.

Monday’s forum didn’t solve the problems plaguing mental health care. But here’s hoping that it starts a bigger and much-needed community conversation.

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