Mississippi: On the Road to Recovery

CPSS.logo.OFFICIALWhat makes you happy? It seems like a simple question, and it is. The answer, on the other hand, varies from person to person. But one thing the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (MDMH) is sure of is that happiness is always established in four basic arenas in our lives: Home, Health, Community and Purpose. This applies to all people, young or old, mentally ill or mentally healthy. So, when it was brought to the attention of the directors at MDMH that the state’s mental health system wasn’t designed to provide resources for people to engage in these activities, they knew it was time for a change. Mississippi is now on the road to establishing a state-wide recovery-oriented system of mental health care.
HOME: The change has not come easy for Mississippi. The United States Department of Justice visited our state in 2011. Their purpose was to visit our mental health institutions and insure that there were no civil rights violations. What they found was shocking to the investigators. The patients were isolated, and many were never provided a plan to return to their communities and live near their family and friends. They could not choose who to spend time with, what to eat, or many other activities that we take for granted as part of basic human rights, especially the right to pursue happiness. They had limited, if any, contact with the outside world. The only non-patients they ever saw were doctors and other professionals who are not permitted to have personal relationships with their patients. They were not given opportunities to work or develop hobbies. If the mental health system didn’t provide it directly, they couldn’t have it. They also found that many people who were seen in community-based clinics were coerced, and even punished, for refusing to do what their doctors told them. Punishments were in the form of unnecessary commitments to hospitals, or denying them access to services. These incidents happened to individuals whose only bad behavior was refusing to follow a doctor’s instructions and not for some act of harm to themselves or others.
The investigation by the Department of Justice also found that federal funding was being spent on more and expensive institutions instead of creating community-based mental health centers that are proven to be more effective in helping a person with mental illness stay well and functioning in mainstream society. Home is the best place to maintain optimum health, no matter the condition. It is also proven that having the support of friends and family improves and speeds up the recovery process. A stable and safe place to live improves any mental health challenge, and alleviates stress.
HEALTH: What is known as the “medical model” for mental healthcare has been practiced in our state since the 1980’s. In the medical model, the term “recovery” means “the absence or alleviation of sickness or symptoms”. For people living with a mental illness, a medical recovery is impossible. This has led many mental health professionals to look at mental illness as a chronic progressive disease, and alleviation of symptoms is as good as it gets for the sufferer. This kind of recovery model has made many people lose hope in ever living a fulfilling life. Doctors believe this and pass this message to care givers of people living with mental illness or intellectual/developmental disabilities. In a 2006 study conducted by National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, people with a mental illness diagnosis live an average 25 years less than the general population. Since mental illness is not a life-threatening condition, one must look at other factors to determine why this is happening. What the Association found was that stress was a major factor in the shortening of their lives. Improper diet, prescription drug side effects, smoking, and lack of access to medical care are the primary causes of death for these individuals. Hopelessness and despair is the second leading cause – it leads to self-inflicted injury and suicide.
Studies show that when a person’s physical health is good, it improves their mental health as well. In Mississippi, the institutionalization has prevented people with mental illness from having access to a holistic approach when seeking treatment. A patient must go to two or more hospitals to receive care and treatment, and communication between medical doctors and psychiatrists is minimal. There are even areas of the state where psychiatric emergency care is non-existent, which send many people in crisis to visit medical hospital emergency rooms that are not equipped to fully treat and care for them. Many hospitals in our state do not have beds for patients with serious psychiatric symptoms. If dealing with both a medical and a mental health crisis at the same time, the person must choose which one to have treated first because they cannot get both taken care of at the same hospital. This only exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness and worsens the toll stress is taking on their bodies.
In a recovery-oriented system, recovery is defined as “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” This is the definition adopted by the federal agency known as SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). With this new paradigm, the person living with the condition has more power to control what kind of help they need to live the lives they want to live. And since resources are not always available through the mental health system itself, this new paradigm opens the doors for the system to help that person find them elsewhere in the community. Their choices are no longer limited to only what the clinic has to offer. Giving people choices gives people freedom to take back control over their own wellness and care.
COMMUNITY: What do you do for fun? Are family and friendships important to you? Do you enjoy the activities you find in your community? Your church? Social clubs? Museums, parks and libraries? Does a walk on the beach or exercising at the gym put you in a better frame of mind? Does yoga help you think more clearly to solve problems in your life? Most people find it fulfilling to be involved in their community in some way. But this is something that many Mississippians have not been able to enjoy because of their limited access to it. The limitations are due to placing them in institutes far from home for long periods of time, or the social stigma related to mental illness. Stigma is hard to tackle, and it is largely based on a misunderstanding or ignorance about what mental illness is. The newspapers are often full of stories about people with mental illness, and they are seldom in a good light. But the fact is, one in six Americans has been diagnosed with some sort of mental condition, be it anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or learning disabilities. And no matter the diagnosis, we all have the desire to get the most out of life.
ROAD TO RECOVERY: “One option is not a choice,” said Aurora Baugh, a major coordinator for MDMH’s transition to a recovery-oriented system. “Two options is a dilemma. Three or more options is a choice!” she said. Aurora’s job has her front and center in the most important part of this shift. She works directly with the people who are most affected by the mental health system – the consumer and their family members.
For the past two years, Aurora and her team have worked tirelessly to teach mental health practitioners a new way of delivering their services, and also developing programs to give consumers and their families a voice, and even a seat at the state’s planning table. One of the most essential parts of the new system is recognizing that each person is an expert on themselves. “No one knows you better than you,” Aurora said. So, one of her jobs is to set up workshops for consumers to learn how to explore their own strengths, challenge their own fears, and empower them to seek help where they feel they can get it best. Her biggest program is creating a network of trained professionals who live with mental conditions themselves. “They have lived experience they can share with others,” she explained. The people she trains have achieved a high level of recovery and are willing to help others find their own road to recovery. The professionals, once trained, are called Peer Support Specialists. All state-licensed mental health agencies are now required to employ them because the evidence shows that people who share the same challenges recover better and more quickly when they have someone who’s been there to go through it with them. There are currently about 200 trained peer support specialists throughout the state, and more are being trained as agencies become prepared to embrace this new recovery-oriented system of care.
Here on the Gulf Coast, one can find peer support specialist services offered by the Mental Health Association of South Mississippi. For locations in other parts of the state, and to learn more about the recovery-oriented system of care, visit their website at http://www.dmh.ms.gov/think-recovery. You can also contact the Mississippi Peer Support Specialist Network (MPSSN) through their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/MPSSN
Recovery is for everyone! So, what makes you happy?

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