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Mental health advocates identify local issues, concerns

Albany Herald - 2/17/2020

Feb. 17--ALBANY -- Advocates for individuals with mental illnesses sounded a warning Monday about fears that state budget cuts could impact the most vulnerable in the community.

Those who fall into that category include the homeless and the poor, groups that traditionally are least likely to access mental health services, Debbie Richardson, a county representative on the Region 4 Board of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, told Dougherty County commissioners.

"People are slipping through the cracks," Richardson, who said she was appearing more as an advocate than in her official capacity on the board, told commissioners. "So many of our homeless have mental health (issues). If we lose this funding, the poor and the homeless are the ones who are going to suffer because they can't afford it."

Dougherty County's jail houses a large percentage of mentally ill inmates, as their condition often leads to offenses that land them in trouble with the law, Richardson said.

The funding cuts Richardson referenced have to do with Gov. Brian Kemp's request for budget cuts to the 2020-2021 budget totaling 6 percent for many of the state's departments and a 4 percent cut for the remainder of the budget year ending June 30.

During an appearance in Albany earlier this month for a Georgia Chamber of Commerce quail hunt, Kemp said his budget proposal for next year actually would provide more funding for mental health services but would freeze hiring for positions that have been vacant for as many as 18 months in some cases.

Among the statistics provided to commissioners were national figures that indicate one in four adults experiences mental illness in a given year, with one in 17 having a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder; that mood disorders such as depression are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the country for those ages 18 to 44, and that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the nation and third for those ages 15 to 24.

Also 20 percent of those ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year, Richardson told the board.

In addition to the everyday stresses that can lead to anxiety disorders, many Dougherty County residents have felt the effects from storms over the previous three years that have destroyed property and uprooted families, she said.

"I worry about our community because of our hurricane and our weather events, particularly our young people," Richardson said. "When kids have early stress, it changes their brain waves and even their brain function."

Advocates are working with the community through outreach at church events and a soup kitchen, and in some cases drive those who do not have cars to a pharmacy to pick up medication, Richardson said.

"Transportation is a big issue," said Jere Brands, treasurer and program coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Albany, who appeared with Richardson to encourage citizens to contact lawmakers about the budget and address the stigma that mental illness holds in society. "People not being able to afford their medication is a big issue."

People with severe mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia and major depression are unable to work and also often find it hard to work through the maze of applying for disability assistance, she said.

"We really need some volunteers, some attorneys who will do pro bono work to help them apply for disability," Brands said.

Commissioner Anthony Jones questioned the pair about outreach efforts to bring people such as the homeless into contact with those who provide services. That could take the form of traveling to homeless encampments.

And Commissioner Clinton Johnson suggested that churches, many of which have vans, could be enlisted to help with transportation needs.

"I think a lot of churches have people who are retired, who are (already) helping out in the community," Johnson said.

Enlisting additional community support is one area on which local advocates are planing to work, Richardson said.

In other business Monday, commissioners:

-- Approved the purchase of several vehicles, including a Ford F-150 pickup truck at a cost of $52,611; a fire pumper truck at a cost of $713,68; a Ford Escape for the Dougherty County Sheriff's Office for $24,562, and a 2020 Peterbilt dump truck for the Public Works Department at a cost of $140,583;

-- Approved two purchases of playground equipment for county parks in the amounts of $24,932 for Pine Glen Park and $25,154 for Eliott Park, with the funds to come from special-purpose local-option sales tax proceeds.

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