Budgets cuts could force mental health patients to seek other options

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) – If certain budget cuts are approved, local mental health officials say it is likely that people with psychological problems will be forced to turn to emergency rooms for treatment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a single emergency room visit costs $2,400, the same price of treating a person for an entire year at a community mental health center.

"The ERs are not treatment at all," said mental health counselor Heather Lloyd, who works in the rural areas of Charleston and Dorchester counties. "I mean we've found that these people have been struggling for many years and have not had treatment ever."

"They can try to remedy the immediate issue and then refer out," said Matthew Dorman, director of special operations for Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center. "When they referred them out, the patients were not coming to the mental health center due to transportation or stigma."

This past November, the mission to reach people with mental illness went on the road with the Highway to Hope project. A mental health RV visits four rural areas in Charleston and Dorchester counties where services for psychological problems are hard to find. The RV sets up in the parking lots of churches and health centers.

"I would take long walks, you know just stay up and cope with it," said Gregory Jackson of Edisto explaining the technique he once used to deal with his mental illness.

Without a car, Jackson was unable to make the hour drive from his home to the mental health center in Charleston for treatment. Now that help is just steps away, he visits the RV on a weekly basis.

The Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center also spearheads ACT-Like, an in-home program with four teams of counselors. ACT-Like began locally in 1988. Each week the teams visit the homes of mentally ill people in Charleston and Dorchester counties.

"You sometimes see these things and you think you're crazy and there's something wrong with you and nothing can be done about it and then when you get the right medicine it disappears," said Denise Pope, describing the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder, which she has dealt with for nearly 30 years.

Pope's condition prevents her from driving, so about twice a week a mental health counselor stops in at her West Ashley home.

"It's easier for us to go into their home and get their trust in their environment then to bring them to a huge center here," said Dr. Katherine Smith, medical director of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center.

With budget cuts looming, there is concern among local mental health officials programs like these could be downsized or fall by the wayside, leaving the psychologically ill out in the cold.

"You would just have folks suffering in silence and folks suffering with mental illness that are untreated," said Dorman.

For mental health concerns the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800- 613-8379.

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