Dealing with mental illness is especially heartbreaking when help is not easily accessible or is simply unaffordable. But a multi-faceted effort to ensure that assistance is accessible and affordable for anyone who needs it, at any time, is gaining steam in the Wood River Valley.
Among those working to raise awareness and create support options is Steve Gannon, whose son, Dex, took his own life in December 2010.
"I lost my son," he said. "Since then, I've been an advocate for this cause. There are some wonderful organizations that exist that I didn't know about at the time."
Part of the problem, he said, is the stigma surrounding mental illness, which inhibits communication.
"These are issues that a lot of people shy away from because there's a shame associated with it," he said. "Suicide's a difficult thing to talk about. We've seen occurrences in our community that have been painful."
Gannon said most suicides are a result of mental illness, so raising awareness and securing help for those suffering from mental illness will help address the issue of suicide.
"We're trying to chip away at some of the stigma and shame so people who are struggling will have the courage to get help," he said.
Fundraising for area organizations also is part of his goal.
Gannon and fiancée Susan Spelius Dunning, artistic director of the Sun Valley Artist Series, are the organizers behind a piano concert scheduled for Saturday to benefit suicide prevention and the understanding of mental illness. Proceeds will go to the Wood River chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Crisis Hotline and The Speedy Foundation.
"Our event will raise awareness of this as a problem," Gannon said.
Distributed for the first time at the concert will be a new booklet containing information about mental health resources in the community, which later will be available throughout the valley.
Lower spending, higher costs
Idaho ranks among the lowest in the nation in per-capita mental health spending, according to a November 2011 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called "State Mental Health Cuts: The Continuing Crisis."
Among many cuts to Idaho's budget during the recent economic downturn were cuts to mental health services. Between fiscal 2009 and 2012, Idaho cut from its general fund nearly 18 percent of money tabbed for state mental health agencies—the eighth largest cut in that area among all states.
Idaho spends $44 per person, while the national average is $122, according to NAMI.
Additionally, Idaho is the only state without a locally based, nationally certified suicide prevention hotline, though lawmakers may allocate seed money for that purpose this session.
Despite those low figures, or because of them, the economic hit to counties is high.
"We [the county] have huge motivation to be involved," said Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary. "Our No. 1 priority is, from my perspective, the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. Certainly, mental health falls within that realm."
From an economic standpoint, the county plays a large role in caring for people without the means to pay for services themselves.
The cost to Blaine County for designated examinations, an evaluation completed by a counselor to determine risk to a person in crisis, more than doubled between 2008 and 2011.
The county also contributes to police transports, overnight stays in Canyon View hospital in Twin Falls—at more than $2,000 a day—additional transports and other costs related to mental health crisis intervention.
"That person could get lots of other services if there were earlier intervention," she said. "Even if they go to Canyon View and are released, they come back to Blaine County and there's no services for them. It's no surprise that they end up in crisis again."
Needs assessed, needs addressed
Two years ago, community leaders formed the Community Mental Health Task Force to identify needs in Blaine County. The initiative was spurred by the closure of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's Bellevue office.
"As long as I've lived here, at least 12 years, I've heard dissatisfaction in our community that we don't have adequate mental health services," said McCleary, also a task force member. "In 2010, when Health and Welfare left, it was an event that really motivated people to get together and work to solve this problem."
Representatives from the county, law enforcement, nonprofits, the Blaine County School District, St. Luke's Wood River, private counselors and the public came together in common cause.
"We spent six months gathering data," McCleary said. "It demonstrated the need for a mental health clinic that served all socio-economic groups."
After determining need, the task force proposed a model for services and presented ideas to St. Luke's. The hospital agreed to take the lead and began the process of creating a new mental health clinic.
"The hospital, with the philanthropic support from the [St. Luke's Wood River] Foundation, has committed to providing those services," said Erin Pfaeffle, manager of St. Luke's Center for Community Health and a founding member of the task force.
Though the hospital is still in the staff recruitment phase, its plan is to employ one full-time psychiatrist and two full-time licensed mental health providers, she said.
"Having the services be here at the clinic really capitalizes on resources that already exist here," she said. "Clinicians will work with us at the clinic ... to make sure [that] that client or that family is connected to other community health resources. What's really going to be beneficial is a close relationship between the psychiatrist and the patient's primary care physicians. This will help provide the best care for that individual."
Another major benefit to St. Luke's providing mental health services, she said, is that as a nonprofit hospital it serves everybody.
"We cannot turn anyone away regardless of ability to pay," she said. "Those that can't pay will be linked into our patient financial services process. That's huge. Everybody will have access to these services."
She said that even though there are mental health care providers in the valley, not all are Medicaid and Medicare providers.
"We have good, generous providers in our community," she said, "but it's unfair to ask them to provide free services to everyone in need."
The new clinic also will help people manage their medication, which was another need the task force identified, McCleary said. She is working with Health and Welfare and the South Central Public Health District to find a location for a part-time practitioner in the valley who can assist with that need.
Education and support
Wendy Norbom, executive director of NAMI-Wood River Valley, is encouraged by St. Luke's plan, hoping it will support what she called a "critically underserved" community.
NAMI offers free courses and support groups for those with a mental illness diagnosis and other groups for families and friends.
"We like to say that with early intervention, there is recovery and there is hope," she said.
Norbom has written a grant to train Blaine County law enforcement officers to deal with mental-health scenarios. Often, she said, they are the first people to respond to someone in crisis.
"It's huge to have police officers who know how to de-escalate a situation," she said.
Also on her radar is providing residents with transportation to the Health and Welfare office in Twin Falls and to the Boise Veterans' Affairs medical center.
Pfaeffle echoes the sentiment that for many people, access to services remains an urgent issue.
"We're in a really difficult position in our community right now," she said. "We have a lot of people struggling."
Progress is being made on multiple fronts, however, offering hope for those with a diagnosis as well as for those who love them.
"There's a shift in general education and awareness around mental health issues," Pfaeffle said. "Without a doubt, we're seeing a huge change in the awareness and support around these services. We're really sensing that."
Rebecca Meany: email@example.com