Ky. Voices: Consumers, families key to mental health reform

Kelly Gunning is operations director at NAMI Lexington.
Kelly Gunning is operations director at NAMI Lexington.

Within one week in January, we experienced two days of groundbreaking news events concerning mental health in Kentucky and nationally.

On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama released recommendations for provisions to expand and strengthen mental health services across our country. The recommendations came from Vice President Joe Biden's Task Force to Reduce Gun Violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in December in Newtown, Conn. Many mental health advocacy organizations were engaged with the task force and offered expert advice on the state of our country's mental health system.

We have known for a very long time that the mental health system in this country has been irrevocably broken. We have before us the momentum and a point in history where the necessity —not to fix — but to reinvent the mental health system has presented itself on the national stage.

The president called for five steps toward a renewed focus on mental health:

Training for teachers, school resource officers and others in a position to spot the signs of mental illness and provide assistance.

Improving mental health and substance abuse treatment for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25.

Finalizing mental health parity regulations for health insurance.

Training more than 5,000 additional mental health professionals to serve students and young adults.

Launching efforts to improve understanding of mental illness and the importance of treatment.

The president emphasizes the need for government, advocates, communities, parents, teachers and school counselors to work together. In addition, National Alliance on Mental Illness emphasizes the importance of family psycho-education and support as critical components in meeting the challenge.

The president correctly notes that the vast majority of people living with mental illness are not violent. NAMI supports fixing the existing federal background check system for gun purchases. It also supports provisions to protect privacy to ensure people will seek mental health treatment when needed.

NAMI nationally and locally is eager to work with administrations, policy-makers and providers on the definition and implementation of these important steps.

On Jan. 18, just two days after Obama's historic remarks, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced in Lexington that the University of Kentucky, UK HealthCare, would assume operation and management of the new Eastern State Hospital, slated to open this summer.

The governor announced that there would be greatly enhanced opportunities for teaching, research and advanced neuro-psychiatric care and that there would be some, to be determined, intersections of partnership with Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board, our community-based mental health service provider.

Although there was no mention of the role of family and consumer advocates, dedicated members of NAMI Lexington and other mental health advocates worked for seven years to make the case for building a state-of-the-art healing facility to replace the pre-Civil War hospital.

NAMI Lexington's No. 1 mission has been to increase consumer and family involvement in the system. We have been successful in informing and co-developing collaborative, best-practice, recovery-based programming. We have done that in a mutually beneficial way with Bluegrass over the past 10 years. The resulting programs are progressive and successful, client- and family-centered, nationally award-winning programs.

It is our foremost goal to continue to ensure inclusion of family and consumer voices in collaborations across the continuum of care. This is the cooperative care that both the president and the governor described. As we define a responsive and meaningful course for mental health care, we must include all stakeholders and embrace the wisdom and experience of each.

NAMI Lexington is currently immersed in the decriminalization of seriously mentally ill individuals who commit minor offenses, working with law enforcement, criminal justice, homelessness organizations and area treatment providers. The goal is to increase humane treatment with wrap-around services and to decrease incarceration which results in a clogged legal system, soaring costs and recidivism.

As we cast our eyes and thoughts toward the near horizon, shining like our new hospital, NAMI Lexington shares the hope and goal to increase treatment options, expertise and positive outcomes and to eliminate the misunderstanding and misguided public policies of the past two centuries.

What matters now is how we collectively define what lies ahead.