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Mental health needs discussed, plans made to address gaps

Krystle Wagner • Jan 12, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Monday night’s snow didn't keep community members and leaders from discussing local mental health needs.

More than 70 people gathered at the Grand Haven Community Center for a town hall meeting to discuss mental health services and areas to improve in the Tri-Cities.

Barbara Lee, an “experi-mentor” and executive director of Extended Grace, said mental health requires community solutions and grass-roots solutions, or it becomes a community problem.

"Mental health is a community issue," she said.

One in five American adults live with a mental illness, and nearly 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Lee pointed out Ottawa County’s 2015 Community Health Needs Assessment found the three pressing points are mental health, access to health care and healthy behaviors.

In the past five years, TCM Counseling went from seeing a handful of new patients each month to 80-130 new patients monthly, said the agency’s executive director, Sarah Lewakowski. During the last school year, TCM counselors saw 283 students in 10 local schools.

To address a need in the county, Lewakowski said the Grand Haven-based service plans to open an office in Holland.

One in five adolescents suffer from a mental illness, said Emily Berry, a social worker for Grand Haven Area Public Schools. Among those illnesses are depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In the past five years, there have been four suicides involving Grand Haven High School students. Grand Haven schools have placed a focus on mental illness and suicide prevention.

"This is a definite reality for staff and administration," Berry said.

The district is working on a three-year plan that they hope to extend into the future. All GHAPS staff has been trained in Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR), with the help of TCM Counseling. Berry said the district now plans to offer parent sessions and community events.

In the coming weeks, all high school students will participate in a lesson from the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. Next year, staff will get trained in the foundation's Live, Laugh, Love curriculum.

Berry said their focus is on educating students about how to get help, stomping out the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and educating students on how to encourage their friends to get help.

Programs for elementary and middle schools are currently being looked at and discussed.

Michaela Cortese, a clinical social worker for the North Ottawa Community Health System, said they've noticed an increase lately in teenagers showing suicidal thoughts and having plans for suicide.

One community member asked why there has been an increase in mental illness and suicide cases among teenagers.

Lynn Doyle, executive director of Ottawa County Community Mental Health, explained one reason for the increase is the stress people see in today's world.

Cortese said they see cyber-bullying as a factor, and the exposure teens have to others who have attempted suicide or died by suicide.

One resident asked Dennis VanDam, who was representing state Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, to tell Meekhof about the need for counselors at the elementary school level. The woman who said she teaches first grade said her school has counselors through outside agencies, but none on the school's staff.

"We need it for our children," she said.

After talking about available services, community members turned their focus on discussing the gaps and the pressing issues they want to see addressed. Some of the gaps and opportunities for growth mentioned include first aid mental health training for police, elementary counselors in school buildings, a safe teen center, psychiatry as a whole, an anti-stigma event, non-pharmaceutical options, restore prevention education at the secondary level, and funding. 

To address the gaps and discuss initiatives, community members said they hope to see individuals involved such as students, police, someone living with mental illness, clergy, parents, grandparents, business leaders, lawmakers, school board members, therapists, care givers and philanthropists.

Lee said she hopes Monday's meeting is just the first discussion of many so that community conversation and feedback can create solutions.

"It's one step at a time," she said.

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