NAMI: Behavioral Health doing better
Janet Garth pulls no punches in describing how the events of last January affected the county’s mental-health system.
“Jan. 10 was our Sept. 11. It was a climax to a situation that had been building over the course of several years,” said Garth, who has a son in his 30s who was diagnosed with schizophrenia 13 years ago.
Garth describes the county’s pre-Jan. 10 mental-health system as one where the caseworkers often worked without a net, lacking proper supervision and follow-up care.
“Our family member had a very loving caseworker, but they could have done a lot more if the department would have spent more time working alongside them. There was not enough interaction to stop the deterioration of the disease,” said Garth, who noted that, for a time, her son wouldn’t take his medication, lost weight and became isolated and withdrawn.
“He became gravely disabled because of his illness,” Garth said of her son, whom she did not identify by name. “We just couldn’t get any help.”
That was then.
Today, Garth said, the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services, under the stewardship of Director Robert Erickson and medical director Dr. Douglas Crisp, has worked to eliminate the department’s image as a place where clients are forgotten.
The problem’s not solved, but it’s getting better, said Garth, who serves as a member of the Nevada County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, commonly referred to as NAMI.
“It’s going to take some time before it gets all the way better, but the county seems to be working on it,” Garth said. She credited the county’s new team approach and the addition of Crisp.
Crisp replaced a contract worker, Dr. George Heitzman, who served as accused triple-murderer Scott Thorpe’s psychiatrist before Thorpe allegedly went on a rampage.
Changes at Behavioral Health include increased staffing, which cut down on the time clients wait for appointments. A team structure, led by Crisp, a full-time
medical director, replaced a patchwork of part-time and contract workers.
The teams are made up of two therapists, two part-time psychiatrists, a nurse and nearly a dozen support employees.
“The clients need wraparound (constant) casework. They need help all the time,” said Garth, who attended her first NAMI meeting 10 years ago.
The system, Garth agreed, is much better than a year ago. “Things are improving slowly, but it’s the stigma of mental health that holds a lot of people back,” she said.
Today, with help from the county and her own willingness to work with her family, Garth’s son is back home, working part time at the Snack Shack, a food pantry run by Behavioral Health clients, and is back on his medication.
Lael Walz, executive director of the county’s NAMI chapter, said the group’s members – more than 100 in all – benefited greatly from the changes.
“There’s no way of knowing whether (last Jan. 10) could have been avoided, but we’re very supportive of the changes Robert Erickson has made,” she said.
Like Garth, Walz painted a grim pre-Jan. 10 picture: “The waiting lists alone were horrible. Even if you wanted services, none were available.”
“Now, the outpatient system has been greatly improved. We’re fully staffed,” Walz said.
Walz credited Supervisor Elizabeth Martin for helping secure a $400,000 grant from the state that will help treat patients with mental disorders and drug dependencies, a problem that affects nearly 80 percent of mental health patients.
Walz also credited a new forensic committee created after the shootings that collects input from law enforcement, the courts, the District Attorney’s Office and the jail to talk about ways to handle patients not necessarily served by the county’s mental-health system.
The county also is applying for a state grant that will provide services to the homeless who are mentally ill or have broken the law.
For every success story, there are those such as that told by Margie Leatherman, who shortly after the Jan. 10 shootings said her son, 22-year-old Mario Frenette, could be “the next Scott Thorpe.”
Frenette was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago. The extent of his treatment in Nevada County consisted of one 20-minute interview every six weeks in addition to his medication.
Leatherman said Frenette had bouts where he would hit her repeatedly and refuse to take his medication.
She also blames the county for failure to provide what she believes is a proper diagnosis. After a stay at a medical facility in the Napa Valley, Frenette is making progress at a Merced dual-diagnosis center.
“It was terrible. There was not enough care. Had he been hospitalized sooner, he would not have deteriorated so much,” Leatherman said. Frenette was stabilized in November.
“I wish they could have gotten to him sooner – then I wouldn’t have lost him,” said Leatherman, who doubts her son ever will live with her again.
Leatherman said she’d like to have her son back in the county system one day.
“I know when I call (Behavioral Health) now, I get better treatment. For myself, I think we’re going to be a little better off now. The worst thing you can do is put someone in a padded cell when all they’re doing is hearing voices. They need assistance.”
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