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New state mental illness initiative targets stigma

By Glenn Evans
April 19, 2015 at 4:15 a.m.

East Texans are known to rally around friends battling cancer, and a new initiative from a major Texas philanthropy hopes the same can one day be said about that person if he or she is battling mental illness.

In its first major study of mental health in the Lone Star State, the four-year-old Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute focused on conditions for veterans, children and the criminal justice system, which often is the default treatment option.

"It's a shame our society is the way it is, but there is a lot of hope," said Kanani Quijano, a spokeswoman for the mental health initiative of the Meadows Foundation in Dallas. "One day, people will be able to say, 'You know what? I suffer from depression. I'm bipolar,' the same way they say, 'I have cancer.

"Years ago, people didn't want to say they had cancer, and I think we can get there with mental health, too."

Texas State of Mind, the policy institute's first statewide probe, found nine in 10 Texans find it more difficult to discuss a mental illness diagnosis than a physical one.

Slightly more than three out of four, 76 percent, have a close friend or family member who has experienced a mental health-related issue, the survey of randomly selected Texans conducted last summer showed.

"We really wanted to gauge how people felt about mental health as opposed to cancer, for instance," Quijano said. "We want people to start to feel comfortable enough to open up and start saying they need help."

The Meadows offshoot, founded in 2011, also wants to raise awareness of a need for a widespread mental health care network.

"We wanted to bring mental health as a topic to the forefront," Quijano said.

The topic has been a recent headline grabber in Longview, where a 17-year-old woman wrote a suicide note before charging with a knife at police, who fatally shot her.

Kristiana Coignard's Jan. 22 death in the lobby of the police station drew attention to Longview.

Andy Keller, a doctor of psychology with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, read news reports coming from East Texas about the incident, including the suicide note in which the teen despairs of her mental illness.

He said Coignard's statement in the note that she doesn't deserve to live exemplifies the need to lift the stigma from mental illness.

"If this young lady had had cancer, she would have been lionized in her church and would have been up to her eyeballs in casseroles," Keller said. "Our greatest supports, like our churches, our schools, our families, can turn into the things that are a pressure because of our shame. It's also our failure as a society to really have the courage to make it safe for these conversations to take place. We didn't do it in time for this young woman."

Keller said specialized police units trained to deal with mentally ill people have been started in Houston and Brazos County.

He said the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement does oversee a moderate amount of training for peace officers.

"It's generally in larger counties. ... That doesn't prevent, in any given occurrence, a young officer being placed in a hard situation and have to make a decision," he said.

Keller was encouraged, though, to learn of a specialized court in Gregg County. Court at Law No. 1 Judge Becky Simpson oversees her Mental Health Jail Diversion docket monthly.

Simpson created the specialized court, which coordinates with the regional mental health authority, Community HealthCore, five years ago. Its goal is to close the revolving door between jail and the streets, where mentally ill people routinely are arrested on trespassing charges. Many are homeless.

"I just saw the same people over and over," Simpson said. "And we were making no progress whatsoever."

The court has a pre-trial diversionary program that gets defendants who often have strayed from daily medication regimens back on track, assigns case managers and provides other missing links in their ability to achieve normal activities of daily life.

A probation component is much the same, offered to those whose cases do reach a finding of guilt or deferred guilt.

"I would call that a very progressive practice," Keller said, though he added such focused efforts can be expensive.

This one isn't.

"The beauty of this program is it doesn't cost anybody anything," Simpson said.

The judge already is paid, and District Attorney Carl Dorrough has provided John Roberts, who already handles other misdemeanor cases in Simpson's court.

The mental health court does not use any government grants, Simpson added.

"And Community HealthCore agreed to do it," she said. "The cost to the county is court-appointed counsel, which we have (to provide) anyway."



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