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HEALTH-MENTAL Apr-19-2011 (1,050 words) Backgrounder. With graphic posted Jan. 28 and photos posted April 19. xxxn

Church, society still lag in help, welcome to those with mental illness

Deacon Tom Lambert of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Chicago co-chairs the National Catholic Partnership on Disability's Council on Mental Illness. He says mental illness is a "no-casserole disease" that keeps people from coming to the door with concern or assistance. (CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Deacon Tom Lambert wants people to know that Jared Lee Loughner, charged with killing six people and wounding 13 others in the parking lot of a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket in January, "is not the face of mental illness in this country."

Those with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, and the vast majority live and work quietly in their communities, trained by society not to share too much information about their struggles.

Deacon Lambert calls mental illness a "no-casserole disease." When his wife had open-heart surgery 25 years ago, "the doorbell never stopped ringing" and he discovered more ways to cook chicken than he ever knew existed. But when his daughter was hospitalized for mental illness 20 years ago, he said, "no one came to the door."

He also found during those dark days two decades ago that "the church leadership knew very little about mental illness" and there was nothing in place to help those with mental illness or their families. So Deacon Lambert and his wife set about establishing a Commission on Mental Illness in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which eventually became part of the archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities, albeit without any church funding.

"And that's the way it exists to this day," he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from his office at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish on Chicago's Near North Side. "I call it an unfunded Gospel mandate."

At the national level, Deacon Lambert co-chairs the National Catholic Partnership on Disability's Council on Mental Illness, which has developed resources to help parish leaders and individual Catholics welcome and assist those with mental illness in their congregations. He also serves as president of Faith and Fellowship, a Chicago-based outreach to people with severe mental illnesses.

The shootings in Tucson brought to the forefront many problems facing those with mental illness, including a decline in funding for assistance programs in most -- if not all -- states and a lack of knowledge among the church's "first responders" about what might be available to help those with mental illness.

In Loughner's case, his erratic behavior in the months before the shooting led to his suspension from Pima Community College, with a requirement that he receive a psychiatric evaluation before his return.

"To me, that is like telling someone who has broken his leg to go to the hospital and get it fixed," Deacon Lambert said. "He might want to do it, but he's not capable of doing it."

Which is not to say that mental health services aren't available. In 2009, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, Catholic Charities agencies in the United States provided behavioral health services and counseling to 419,222 individuals.

That ran the gamut from those with "temporary, situational" depression that requires only short-term counseling to the treatment of those with persistent and severe mental illness requiring a complex and sometimes changing combination of medication and counseling, said Jean Beil, senior vice president for programs and services for Catholic Charities USA for the past six years.

"There is a system to maneuver and sometimes it is difficult to manage that system," Beil said, noting that Catholic Charities caseworkers can help clients and their families figure out the best type of treatment and find those resources.

Catholic hospitals play a key role as well, often providing behavioral health services that are not available through other local hospitals because they are not profitable.

Even though the 636 Catholic hospitals make up less than 13 percent of all community-based hospitals in the United States, they provided 18 percent of the child and adolescent psychiatric services in this country, 20 percent of alcohol and drug abuse treatment, 22 percent of crisis prevention services and nearly 30 percent of geriatric psychiatric services, according to figures compiled by the American Hospital Association and Catholic Health Association for 2009.

Catholic facilities can also lead the way in finding solutions to problems unique to the community in which they are located.

In Missoula, Mont., for example, St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center opened an urgent care mental health clinic to respond to one of the nation's highest suicide rates.

"We were all aware that too many folks in our area were accessing mental health care by coming into our emergency department," community benefit manager Merry Hutton told Catholic Health World, a CHA publication. In addition, she said, "subsequent readmission rates to the ED were an indicator that people were having to wait too long to see therapists or providers in the community. The community needed something different."

At St. John Medical Center in Longview, Wash., the Peace of Mind Clinic and A Child's Place offer behavioral health services for adults, teens and children with less serious issues than those experienced by those with chronic mental illness.

At a time when health care in general is facing many financial challenges, however, mental health services can have even greater problems.

In New York as recently as 2009, St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers had a 97 percent occupancy rate for its 212 inpatient beds for those with psychiatric or addiction-related illnesses. Its two outpatient facilities had 250,000 visits each year.

Unable to sustain a series of financial losses, St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan closed its doors in 2010. It was the flagship of the St. Vincent system, which was sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Sisters of Charity.

Brian L. Fitzsimmons, who served as executive director of behavioral health services for St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers until the end, said some of the patients served by the Manhattan facility were able to find help at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Yonkers, which purchased St. Vincent Hospital Westchester, or at other facilities in the New York area.

But there was a loss of about 79 inpatient beds available for behavioral health services to "a very, very ill population," including 16 beds for children, Fitzsimmons told CNS April 1. Many outpatient slots for psychiatric and addiction services also are gone.

"I've heard that a number of emergency rooms have become increasingly busy," he said. "Let's put it this way -- there have been complaints about the type of patient they are getting."


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