February 27, 2009

Professionals discuss mental health care for the underserved

A panel of four health professionals who treat mental illness discussed how to provide mental health services to the under-served in the face of closing clinics. They stressed that treating patients with mental illnesses requires that various organizations coordinate their efforts, but as organizations shut down, patients may not have the resources they need. Cuts are hitting four South Side mental health clinics, including the nearby Woodlawn clinic. The clinics will shut down April 7.

Barbara Smith, a clinical social worker who works on the South Side, predicted that some patients may not transfer to another clinic after the site they attend closes. “When people settle on a place for their mental health services, they see that as a support. People will get very discouraged and just drop out. This bodes very poorly for the community,” she said. “There are still some community health services nearby. The closer the services are, the more likely the people are to seek them out."

The eight remaining clinics must cope with an increase in patients despite a decrease in resources. "There are [other] sites, but what type of service [they have], I don’t know. But there will definitely be a shortage,” Smith said.

Daniel Yohanna, associate professor and vice chair of the department of psychiatry, spoke about the challenges of the under-served patients, especially the severely, persistently ill. “The majority of the patients are in this group, and generally they depend on state services for their care,” he said.

Smith said the mentally ill often lead an isolated life, which makes treatment more difficult. She works with patients in group or individual sessions to break through the isolation, but said that a social worker can only provide part of the treatment. “The social worker will help the patient identify recourses in the community,” she said.

Effective treatment costs less than the prisons or halfway houses that mentally ill often end up in if not treated, Yohanna said. “We need money. We know what to do, we just need money. The way to do that is through political advocacy,” he said.

Success depends on more than just throwing money at the problem. “It’s actually about the coordination of care and moving people to psychiatric resources where they could succeed,” Yohanna said.