Last Sunday the following appeared on the editorial page of Sunday, Feb. 17th Florida Times-Union:
"Jacksonville has spent great amounts of time and treasure to reduce its state-leading murder rate. Commissions have been formed, a prayer meeting was held at the Veterans Memorial Arena, experts were brought in, Jacksonville Community Council Inc. was enlisted. Yet just about every year more Jacksonville residents die by suicide than by murder-- and it's hardly noticed....Ben Warner, JCCI executive director, said in an email: ‘We'd love to do a study on suicides....The funding climate has changed dramatically, and now anything we undertake has to pass two tests: First (and most important), is this of critical value to the community? If it isn't, we won't do it. But then we have to ask a second question, will someone pay for it?’”
Here's why I think Mike Clark of the Florida Times-Union wants JCCI to conduct an inquiry into suicide: he knows that when it is a citizen-based inquiry, there will be advocacy. The fact is that the editorial piece gave the solution. It states, "Jacksonville needs a mental health walk-in center." That might be true. What Mike knows is that in order to get a mental health walk-in center, citizens need to be behind it. There have to be advocates.
Every improvement to our community costs money. Even changing a policy requires people to operate differently, or new people to be hired. And when we are talking about a public health issue such as suicide, we are talking about public dollars.
I attended two events recently that illustrate why we need a citizen-based inquiry into suicide; an inquiry that will result in a group of citizens ready to advocate for better mental health care in Jacksonville.
First, on February 12, the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida held a press event in Hemming Plaza. After the dignitaries spoke, Moody Chisholm, President and CEO of St. Vincent’s Healthcare, asked for questions. A woman who did not work in community health, public health, or perhaps had not worked in a while was listening and started walking toward Moody. She asked this excellent question: "What will this plan for coordinated health programming mean for people who are chronically ill?" She mentioned how difficult it is to afford medication. I immediately thought that perhaps she was referring to being chronically mentally ill. At that moment, she was asking an advocate's question: "What will this do to change my life?"
Second, on February 20, the Society for Marketing Professional Services North Florida held a forum on Transportation at UNF. In attendance were highway engineers, geotechnical engineers, architects, lawyers, politicians, and community leaders. The purpose of the forum was to discuss how business and government can collaborate together to reach out to citizens and build support for better roads and mass transit. It was an inspiring meeting because a transportation advocate from Georgia described a campaign for a penny tax that now funds road infrastructure throughout the state.
Citizens do make investments in fly-overs, retention ponds, and better roads. We enlist all the right people to do that for us. We advocate for better roads and our transportation gateway which creates better jobs and a higher standard of living.
I bet that out of the hundred or more people in attendance at that transportation meeting, close to all of us have been touched by a substance abuse or mental health problem in our family, friends, relatives. So why can’t we have a similarly inspiring meeting about mental health?
Mike Clark is right to compare suicide to homicide. In Jacksonville we die from mental illness more frequently than from homicide. And we have experienced a school shooting already.
In 2012, Shane Schumerth, a twenty-eight year-old Spanish teacher was fired at Episcopal School of Jacksonville. Later he killed headmaster Dale Regan and himself. Schumerth’s family subsequently told the Florida Times-Union that he struggled with depression and paranoia. Citizens need to understand how community mental health influences their risk of experiencing another tragedy. And more importantly, Jacksonville residents want to know how they can advocate for a stronger system of mental health services. A specific gap has already been identified which indirectly affects risk of future tragedy:
-- Psychotic disorders present in early adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 24.
-- No state or federal dollars are available to fund mental health services for young adults over the age of 18.
-- Young adults are less likely to hold a job that affords them health insurance, and less likely to hold insurance that has mental health parity.
We need advocates for better community mental health services in Jacksonville. We need them because there are too many people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness without the support of the health insurance industry-- just like the woman who asked her advocacy question in Hemming Plaza this month.Chronically mentally ill folks often lack support of family or friends, and when they struggle for too long, they end up breaking laws and committing offenses, whether violent or non-violent. As Sheriff John Rutherford has said many times publicly, ‘I am the leader of Jacksonville's largest mental health facility.’
JCCI has engaged citizens in learning and advocacy for mental health. In 2008 JCCI Forward conducted an issue forum on youth suicide. Out of that work, several persons became more engaged in community mental health and advocacy. In fact, the chair of the forum later became Board Chair for our local chapter of Mental Health America, a support, advocacy and education organization. Later, a speakers bureau made presentations to citizens, raising awareness of youth suicide; to understand the warning signs and how to connect to help.
And efforts to coordinate a system mental health care for Jacksonville’s vulnerable children are underway. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration in Washington DC awarded Jacksonville a $9 million grant to get mental health services to children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. The Women's Giving Alliance focuses its grantmaking on mental health of girls and women.
These pieces (addressing vulnerable youth, females, or suicide) are exactly why Jacksonville needs a citizen-based inquiry into the current state of mental health in our community. Yes, we need programs designed specifically for girls. And we need to be aware of the warning signs of teen suicide. More importantly, our decision-makers, citizens, and politicians need to have a birds-eye view of mental health in Jacksonville. All the pieces must be coordinated so as to be meaningful as a whole, or else we all lose. We cannot afford to not understand the big picture.
And if that is not enough reason to financially support a large-scale inquiry into mental health in Jacksonville, here's another reason: on the horizon are major changes that will affect the life of the woman who asked her question in Hemming Plaza. If indeed she suffers from chronic mental illness, then she knows that health insurance generally discriminates against her illness. A person living with schizophrenia can get a lifetime mental health benefit of 60 days of inpatient hospitalization from insurance. For an illness whose hallmarks include periods of relapse, that is cruel. In 2014, when the Affordable Care Act is implemented, mental health benefits on par with health benefits will be more widely accessible. We all need to understand what these changes will mean for us individually and as a community.
What You Can Do: Tell Jacksonville's leaders how to measure progress towards better community mental health. Attend the March 19 meeting of the JAX2025 initiative and state your views. When we have the vision, the money will follow.