Mental health reform flawed

Plan to shift mentally ill to communities fails to address neighborhood opposition. 

When we think of neighborhoods, typically we think of people pretty much like us — single people or families, people with normal jobs and in normal relationships, people you wouldn’t mind asking to feed your cat while you’re out of town.

And the prospect of locating a clubhouse or group home for people with mental illness in the neighborhood fills many with fear. Even many who think of themselves as caring and open-minded don’t want a “congregate-care” facility in their neighborhood.

But the whole notion of homogeneous neighborhoods where nobody suffers from mental illness is an illusion.

In this country, approximately 2.6 percent of us suffer from a “severe and persistent” mental illness. Based on these estimates, about 148,000 adults in North Carolina suffer from some form of mental illness.

However, with the proper medications and support, many of these people lead nearly normal lives. Some who are lucky enough to have support from family or friends may be living in your neighborhood now. They make excellent neighbors and would be more than happy to feed your cat or help you in any way they can.

Unfortunately, though, these facts about mental illness are not well known. And stigma against it is alive and well.

Recently, Derek’s Renaissance House encountered problems in getting a permit to operate a clubhouse for the mentally ill in Raleigh. It turns out that Raleigh has no allowance for approving a clubhouse for people with mental illness — not in a residential district, not in a business district, not even in an institutional district.

And if city zoning laws were unwelcoming, the neighborhood residents were even more hostile.

From the neighbors, there were outcries of fear — fear for their safety and fear for their property values.

One of the most vocal was a pastor, who showed no compassion and no willingness to accept into the neighborhood a clubhouse designed to foster an environment for recovery.

The state of North Carolina has mandated a change in the care of the mentally ill and has begun closing 50 percent of the beds in state psychiatric hospitals.

The state plan calls for integrating people with mental illness into communities, placing them in residences and clubhouses in local neighborhoods.

But the state has failed to pilot such a transition in a single community to see what problems local agencies will encounter.

Unless communities are prepared to accept citizens with mental illness and provide appropriate care, tossing these people out of a stigma-free refuge with round-the-clock professional care is wrong.

Ann Akland is president of the board of directors of Derek’s Renaissance House in Raleigh, N.C.

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