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Metro Detroit mental health advocates call for stronger safety net

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Wixom — While many efforts at the state, local and federal levels are underway to address mental health issues in Michigan, Metro Detroit professionals say more early intervention, coverage options and support systems are needed to create a stronger safety net.

"If we don’t change the way our culture looks at mental illness … people simply won't seek the help they need," said Kevin Fischer, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Michigan chapter, to an audience Tuesday night.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, left, talks with Bethany Opelewski following a town hall discussion Tuesday in Wixom to address mental health issues, including suicide prevention and substance use.

The issues related to treating mental health cases across the region were the focus of a town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Rochester Hills.

More than 70 people gathered at Sarah Banks Middle School to hear from a panel of health care professionals and advocates who talked about the resources available to residents facing serious depression and other conditions as well as the challenges involved in providing services.

The forum coincided with efforts statewide and across the country to address what some  advocates are calling a crisis in mental health care.

A state task force has been examining mental health reforms related to incarceration.

Meanwhile, some school districts are addressing suicide prevention as suicide remains the second leading cause of death in Michigan for those between ages 10 and 24, behind accidents, according to state statistics.  

Youth and young adult suicide rates in Michigan and nationally have been climbing steadily since 2007, and the state outpaced the national rate from 2011 to 2017, figures show.

Last month, a school summit was part of the fourth annual Kevin's Song Conference on Suicide to teach educators what can be done in K-12 schools to end suicides among Michigan's young people.

The rate of suicides in Michigan increased by nearly 33% between 1999 and 2016, joining most other states across the country with a spike in the amount of people taking their own lives, according to data the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2018.

"Even one suicide is too many," said Tara Consolino, director of suicide prevention and substance use disorder at Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

Dr. Nicole Lawson, left, Tara Consolino, U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, Kevin Fischer and Kelly Powell join a town hall discussion about mental health issues on Tuesday. "If we don’t change the way our culture looks at mental illness … people simply won't seek the help they need," said Fischer.

Among the initiatives launched to address mental health, Fischer mentioned his group's "Ending the Silence" presentation that trains community members to learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what steps to take.

He cautioned that many parents "wouldn't recognize the signs" of someone contemplating suicide. He also said that mental health should be viewed as that which is as important as physical health, and warnings deserve as much attention.

"If you have a child who had the flu that lingered for two weeks, you’d have no problem taking that child" to the emergency room or urgent care," Fischer said. 

The panelists also discussed the balancing act some residents face when seeking care through their doctors and how short-term referrals for psychiatric or other treatment might not be adequate.

"Depression is not a broken bone," Nicole Lawson, deputy executive director and chief operating officer at the Oakland Community Health Network, told the audience. "It is a longer-term treatment and support."

Some patients with mild or moderate conditions might also be treated the same way, including hospitalization, as those diagnosed as having more serious issues, experts said. 

"If we have more crisis intervention centers, I think that’s going to help," said Kelly Powell, behavioral health consultant with Beaumont Medical Center in Dearborn.

Lawson also mentioned looking at obstacles for residents seeking treatment, such as lack for access in low-income neighborhoods.

"We really need to pay attention to that to ensure we are getting services and support to all members of our communities," she said.

Beaumont Health said in a news release in December that, with Universal Health Services, construction would begin in 2020 on a 150-bed mental health hospital in Dearborn "to address the state’s growing, unmet need for accessible, high-quality and advanced mental health services" and said the mental health plans "extend beyond the walls of the new facility."

"The new hospital will help us coordinate the entire continuum of services for comprehensive inpatient and outpatient mental health care, clinical training and innovative new approaches to accessing care," Beaumont Health CEO John Fox said in the December release. "Beaumont Health and UHS will provide specialized care for patients, along with medical residencies, clinical training and the latest telehealth technology."

Stevens said she co-sponsored the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Expansion Act in the U.S. House.

"We certainly want to see more people covered in an affordable and responsible way," she said.

LaDawn White of Detroit heard about the event online and joined the forum Tuesday.

"I wanted to hear what was being addressed," she said, adding that working to address mental health issues "is just such a multifaceted area. There are so many avenues, from youth to the elderly."