Mental health escapes shadow

Published May 14, 2007

Despite a shortage of services for the mentally ill in Hernando County, one longtime group wants to remind residents that it's available to help.

The Hernando National Alliance on Mental Illness has teamed with local leaders to host the 13th annual mental health seminar on Saturday.

Along with the Sheriff's Office, officials from Springbrook Hospital, the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, the Hernando County Health Department and others will take part in the event at Springbrook Hospital, west of Brooksville.

The goal, said NAMI Hernando president Darlene Linville, is to provide residents a snapshot of mental illness in the county - educating them on what the current situation is and what services are offered.

For 23 years, NAMI has been a constant for those touched by mental illness in Hernando, whether it be people dealing with an illness or those who have loved ones with a mental illness.

The group also runs the Beautiful Mind drop-in center in Spring Hill. The center, on Spring Hill Drive, promotes mental health education through regular support group meetings and courses.

"It's a great opportunity, in view of all the things that are happening in our country and state, to educate the public about mental health, " Linville said. "The emphasis needs to be on support at the local level so we can figure out how to alleviate the problems we have."

The results of a health needs study released in September showed that Hernando County residents, especially the working poor, were experiencing increased mental health problems.

The same study also showed that the mental health hospitalization rates are substantially higher in Hernando than the state. In 2001, there were 9.9 such hospitalizations per 100, 000 people in the county, compared with 6.5 statewide.

As a result, the mentally ill often wait for hours in hospital emergency rooms - taken there by family or friends who don't know what else to do - after they've been declared incompetent. Or, if a person with a mental illness commits a crime, he or she waits in jail.

There are two locations for Hernando residents to seek treatment: the Harbor, a county- and state-funded treatment center in Spring Hill, and Springbrook, a private facility.

Both facilities accept residents who have been taken into custody under Florida's Baker Act, having been declared by a psychiatrist or law enforcement officer as a danger to themselves or others. Both have limited space - the Harbor has 12 beds for adults, and even fewer for children, while Springbrook has 60 for those ages 65 and older.

Considering the rise in the number of people committed under the Baker Act, along with those ordered to seek treatment for substance abuse, the need in the county is there, Linville said.

At this weekend's seminar, she's especially excited about highlighting the crisis-intervention training that sheriff's deputies are receiving to better gauge how to approach mentally ill individuals. Law enforcement officers are usually the first people to come in contact with them.

This summer, school resource officers will undergo similar training to counter the increase in the number of children committed under the Baker Act.

The program, offered through the Harbor for the past couple of years, helps deputies know what to do to keep certain situations from escalating, said Michael Hensley, chief deputy at the Sheriff's Office.

"Mental health patients pose a unique problem to the criminal justice system, " Hensley said. "They need mental health treatment and evaluation, not criminal justice-type action."

For Linville, education is the main goal of NAMI. Helping people understand that it is a disease like cancer or a heart condition is key.

People often don't understand that, she said, and she hopes Hernando residents take the time on Saturday to learn.

"Everyone's invited, " Linville said. "Whoever is interested in the field of mental health and what's going on in Hernando County is more than welcome."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

Fast Facts:

If you go

NAMI Hernando's 13th annual mental health seminar will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. The event will be in the cafeteria at Springbrook Hospital, 7007 Grove Rd., west of Brooksville. The Beautiful Mind drop-in center is at 10554 Spring Hill Drive, in the Brothers I & II Plaza. For information about NAMI Hernando, visit www.namihernando.org or call 684-0004.