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Wolf’s mental health initiative brings officials, advocates to Muhlenberg

Elected officials, community leaders, health care providers and mental health advocates gathered at Muhlenberg College Jan. 3 for a roundtable conversation.

The diverse group was called together by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-132nd, to discuss mental health and related topics.

This event was first in a series of discussions announced as a part of Wolf’s new “Reach Out Pa.: Your Mental Health Matters” initiative.

Unveiled Jan. 2, the campaign seeks to destigmatize the issue of mental health, provide additional support to specialists and social workers, and increase access to mental wellness resources across Pennsylvania.

“All of us, whether we suffer directly or not from mental illness, we all suffer,” Wolf said.

“We need a society that understands and recognizes how mental illness needs to be addressed, worked with in every way we possibly can.”

Joining Schlossberg and Wolf were Congresswoman Susan Wild, D-7th, state Reps. Peter Schweyer, D-22nd, Steve Samuelson, D-135th, and Jeanne McNeill, D-133rd, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, and more than a dozen representatives Lehigh Valley organizations.

Numerous panelists said one of the largest problems is a critical lack of available mental health professionals.

“I would say access is sometimes bigger than stigma in that people are reaching out but when you’re denied that, sometimes you have to catch that person at that time,” Jody McCloud-Missmer, behavioral health administrator with St. Luke’s University Health Network said.

McCloud-Missmer said, at some psychiatric providers, people have to wait nine months for a general adult intake appointment. Mike Slack, CEO of KidsPeace, said adolescents in his organization currently have to wait about six months for an outpatient visit with a psychiatrist.

Maggie Murphy, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Lehigh Valley, said this shortage can be attributed to, among other things, an aging psychiatrist population, lack of parity and valuation between mental and physical health services, and low rates of insurance reimbursement for professionals.

“I think it’s almost considered nonessential,” Wild said. “It’s not like getting cancer treatment; it’s almost viewed as an optional service that doesn’t warrant the same level of parity.”

School mental health needs were also a major subject of discussion.

Brenda DeRenzo, director of student services for the Parkland School District, said her district has reached out to agencies which provide behavioral services for free, but the lack of reimbursement prevented organizations from sticking around.

“They financially couldn’t keep us as clients and they backed out,” DeRenzo said.

She said the absence of school mental health support is stressful for parents who may not know where to turn to for help, especially with the small pool of mental health professionals.

“They [parents] are calling, call after call, only to find out they’re not taking any new patients while they have this child who is very ill,” DeRenzo said.

Thomas Parker, superintendent of the Allentown School District, said the rate of mental health referrals in his schools have significant increased from around 750 referrals seven years ago to over 3,000 a year.

He said that there are no school social workers in his district because of insufficient resources.

“When people begin to reduce their workforce or constrict their budget, those are some of the things that go away first,” Parker said. “Not having those resources in districts to provide at least access or support … begins to perpetuate some of those concerns into the later years for some students.”

Parker also noted his schools serve as the primary connection to mental health support for many families, and, if such services are not provided, students may be unable to access forms of assistance outside the district.

Dr. Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, and Tim Silvestri, director of counseling services at Muhlenberg College, discussed underrepresentation among mental health services. Silvestri said Muhlenberg had greatly improved its mental health system by diversifying their mental health staff and offering customized care models to provide more equitable treatment.

Batts said a “concerted effort” is needed to ensure providers not only reach areas where mental wellness services are currently unavailable, but also that those services reflect the impacted communities.

He also advocated for providing mental health resources to former prisoners, noting how the traumatic experience of incarceration can severely hamper reintegration into society.

“I would imagine, I would love to envision every probation or parole officer also having a social worker on staff,” Batts said.

Panelists also spoke about the serious impact of the stigma surrounding mental health.

Many agreed that stigma played a role in the different value placed on mental wellness and physical health, and the lack of parity between health services.

Christy Dunbar, peer educator with NAMI-Lehigh Valley, shared her story of treatment and the risk associated with revealing her condition.

Dunbar said that after she disclosed her mental health diagnosis, she was forced out of the teaching position she had for 17 years.

Dunbar said although she has recovered and got her career back on track, the experience was still unexpected and traumatic.

Jeremy Warmkessel, president of the IAFF Local 302 Allentown Firefighters Union, also spoke of dealing with the stigma, noting that it was especially difficult to overcome for firefighters and other first responders.

“They’re afraid to disappoint the people that they are serving, and they’re afraid to disappoint the guys they work with,” Warmkessel said.

He explained that emergency workers face additional obstacles and discrimination in trying to obtain workers’ compensation for mental health conditions.

According to Warmkessel, due to the nature of first responders’ work, mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are “expected of us upon taking employment” and do not count as abnormal working conditions.

As a result, emergency workers are left unable to obtain workers’ compensation or seek the necessary treatment to improve mental wellness and are left “suffering in silence” for fear of losing their job.

Warmkessel noted that measures are being considered in the state House of Representatives to add mental health considerations into the workers’ compensation act and create support programs and hotlines for first responders, saying they were a good first step toward getting emergency workers the help they need.

Murphy noted that her organization has started the successful NAMI LV Talks program, where individuals in successful recovery from mental illness tell their stories through short videos.

She said these clips seek to destigmatize mental health and assure others with mental illness that there is hope for recovery.

“People who have a mental illness are not somehow ‘other,’ they’re us,” Murphy said,

“They’re ourselves, our friends, our family, our co-workers.”

Dunbar said stories of successful management can be very powerful for someone struggling with mental illness. Speaking of her own personal experience and her interaction with patients at hospitals, she says people react positively to her success story.

“I see everyone - professionals, people who have been through the criminal justice system - all ages, all in the same place, but the one thing that I hear is that it was so helpful for them to see someone doing well with a mental health condition,” Dunbar said.

“You don’t really see that because you’re among people who are also struggling … the one thing I know I wanted to see, when I was at my lowest, was someone who was doing well with it.”

The roundtable also addressed the new 988 national suicide prevention hotline, Mental Health First Aid training to help people render basic, calm support to those in crisis, improving telepsychiatry programs for expanded mental wellness coverage, and introducing anonymous reporting systems and suicide awareness and prevention programs in schools.

Schlossberg was one of the first people who recorded a video for NAMI LV Talks, and he shared his own experiences with contemplating suicide and struggling with depression and anxiety with the roundtable.

He said that with medication, a robust support network, self-care and therapy he has improved his mental well-being and been able to continue living a fulfilling life.

Schlossberg also acknowledged he was privileged to receive the necessary assistance, and that many people are not so lucky.

“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,” Schlossberg said. “That’s why it’s such an honor to get this conversation started.”

“We understand that part of this journey starts with asking questions,” Wolf concluded. “We have not done enough, and we acknowledge that.

“We need to do more, and this is the start.”

Christy Dunbar, peer educator for the NAMI-Lehigh Valley, shares her experiences with mental health and facing the stigma, noting she was forced out of her teaching career after disclosing her condition. Maggie Murphy, NAMI Lehigh Valley's executive director, listens on the right.