Merlene Davis: Lexington advocates for mental health support new court program

Kelly Gunning gets tired of serving up the same old answers to the same old questions about mental illness awareness in this country, state and city.

But when I talked with her Monday, she sounded somewhat more upbeat.

I called to ask about Mental Health Awareness Week and the local activities that will focus attention on the need for meaningful action regarding our neighbors, friends, family members and strangers who may be struggling with untreated mental illness.

Nationally, we've seen some violent incidents recently which involved people who allegedly had mental problems. Most recently, Miriam Carey was killed after a car chase in Washington, D.C. She reportedly suffered with postpartum depression. Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard and had complained of voices in his head. And Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, had been diagnosed with a sensory disorder and Asperger syndrome, neither of which are considered violent conditions.

The theme for this year's awareness week is "It's Time to Make a Difference."

"I like that. I really like that," said Gunning, director of advocacy and public affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lexington. "It seems like every single week we have another incident. It's because there is no access to treatment. That is the bottom line."

Treatment for mental illness is not funded in the same way other illnesses are, especially if treatment is rendered in a facility strictly for the mentally ill, she explained.

"If it is not going to be treated like any other illness, then (patients) will maintain their illness in the community," she said. "They will use street drugs to self-medicate and that is not the optimum treatment."

The result can lead to criminal acts and jail.

But there has been progress in Fayette County, she said.

Since last year, after a forum held during awareness week, 45 representatives of law enforcement, the judicial system, mental health professionals, family members and consumers have been meeting regularly to decriminalize mental illness.

"We are looking at starting a mental health court," she said, much like the new veterans court and the successful drug court.

A judge would oversee cases involving those with mental illness, probably on Monday afternoons, she said. The holdup, as always, is money. She said $175,000 is needed to start the one-year pilot program. The mental health court would not only address the criminal aspect, but also create an intervention model. Those with mental illnesses then would be treated instead of housed in jails and prisons where they don't belong and can't get treatment.

"Most of the people who have mental illness are not violent," Gunning said. "In fact, most of the people who have mental illness are victims."

To help the truth break down the stereotypes and to bring more awareness to the often ignored problem, NAMI Lexington is hosting a candlelight vigil in Phoenix Park beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. The annual event, celebrated nationwide, commemorates the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding.

"The mental health system is quite broken," said Marcie Timmerman, who is helping to coordinate events this week. "The whole system is broken for the sickest individuals. They don't realize they need help."

At the vigil, people will learn about a new faith initiative that's in the works called Industrial Strength Community.

Also, the ninth annual NAMI Walks will be held in Masterson Station Park Saturday, with free registration starting at noon.

"It is our biggest fundraiser," Timmerman said, "but that is secondary to awareness and advocacy. It is so people will understand that the mentally ill are not any different than the rest of us. You won't know who has mental illness and who does not."

Inflatables, games, food, live entertainment and face-painting will be available. Pets are also welcome.

It is indeed time to make a difference.

"We've got a lot of grass-roots action going on," Gunning said. "All of us like-minded people have to gather together and say, 'OK, no more.'

"The government is not going to take care of people any more," she said. "We've got to take care of our brothers. We are our brothers' keepers."


There are several events this week in Lexington for Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Oct. 8: 6:30 p.m. Annual National Candlelight Vigil, Phoenix Park

Oct. 10: 6:15 p.m. "Words of Hurt/Words of Healing: A Reading to Benefit NAMI." Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.

6:30 p.m. Free screening of Silver Linings Playbook. University of Kentucky Student Center, Room 359

7 p.m. "Communication Techniques." Lexington Public Library, Tates Creek Branch

Oct. 12: Noon. NAMI Walks. Masterson Station Park

Later this month

Oct. 17: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. National Depression Screening Day. W.T. Young Library, UK