Sager: Why mental health matters

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Yet, this is one issue that deserves our attention every day of the year.

Austin is fortunate to have its own mental health center: Austin Travis County Integral Care. However, many are unaware of what Integral Care does. This perception contrasts with the profile it has among policymakers and professionals. Perhaps the discrepancy is explained by the lingering stigma that still surrounds mental illness. It also relates to the lack of knowledge regarding local mental health resources.

Case in point: “What would you do in a mental health crisis?” Most people do not know. Yet, if they witnessed a heart attack, they would know to call 9-1-1 and have CPR administered. First aid is absolutely critical in the moments following a crisis, and yet we don’t recognize how important mental health first aid is. Integral Care has taught Mental Health First Aid to everyone from school teachers and police officers to public librarians and private citizens.

The reason that mental health is on everyone’s radar nowadays is chilling. One out of four adults experience mental illness in any given year. And one out of five youth, ages 13 to 18, experience severe mental health problems. Suicide rates continue to rise. While Texas is the second-largest state in the union, it ranks 48th in its funding for behavioral health.

Mental illness is certainly a lynchpin issue. When it is not in the headlines directly, it is the subtext of other tragedies: child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, and overcrowding in jails and emergency rooms. For a while, the news story lingers in our brains — until our memory fades and we forget. That is, until the next headline appears.

It is heart-breaking that it takes a major tragedy to jump start a national conversation. We need to discuss our support for those diagnosed with mental illness, how to keep mental health services accessible and how to eliminate the stigma that keeps so many from seeking treatment.

Integral Care offers our community a crucial safety net, including 24-hour crisis interventions, psychiatric evaluation, inpatient treatment, crisis respite, family support, employment and vocational services, intensive case management, housing information and referral, supported living and residential services. Assistance is provided in 46 different locations, as well as in homes, on the streets and elsewhere. A phone call to the 24/7 crisis hotline — can change a life.

Integral Care has long been committed to community partnerships that combine innovation with best practice. One such example, Housing First, offers an evidence-based, holistic approach that has already been used in several cities. Chronic homelessness is often coupled with mental illness or substance abuse. Those who qualify for Housing First receive housing in addition to on-site rehabilitation and recovery services. Several prominent organizations came together to create Austin’s first Housing First site at Integral Care’s Oak Springs location.

This commitment is also demonstrated in Families with Voices. Poverty is a suck-hole that keeps many families from seeking mental health treatment. What happens when there is no money for therapy or medication? What if there is no transportation to take someone to medical appointments? And what is the impact when a family has to worry whether there will be shelter over their heads?

Families with Voices offers a wraparound approach that includes psychiatric evaluation, child and family therapy, emergency housing support, job training and placement for caregivers and access to food, transportation and other basic services. It allows families to finally address their underlying mental health issues.

America has come a long way from the time when insane asylums were seen as a major advance in mental health care. Nowadays, people with mental illness have a greater opportunity than ever to recover and reclaim their lives. Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to educate ourselves about this pressing issue while we intensify our support for what Integral Care does.

Sager is interfaith clergy in addition to being an author and speaker. She is the current president of the New Milestones Foundation, a partner of Austin Travis County Integral Care in raising awareness and resources for mental health.

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