When addressing issues and concerns about mental health in Palm Beach County and much of South Florida, elected officials and the media have focused almost exclusively on law enforcement agencies (especially the county sheriff’s office), questioning why a better system does not exist for solving the “mental health crisis”, as the media calls it, among the inmate population. This focus is so misguided as to be laughable. The mental health crisis needs to be addressed BEFORE people enter the legal system. Early identification of problems can most often lead to treatment and support that helps a person with mental illness avoid legal problems entirely.
I am happy to say that some solid public relations work is helping to change this, and turn the focus toward community inspired, real life solutions on mental health. The Palm Beach Post recently covered such an initiative, called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). MHFA is a public education program that teaches you how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Those trained in MHFA know how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and addictions, and to execute a 5-step action plan to help someone developing a mental health concern or in crisis. It’s easy to tell when someone is having a heart attack, is choking or can’t breathe. But what does depression look like? Or anxiety? What would you say to a person you know who says they are thinking about suicide? How can you help in a panic attack?
Many people save lives because they know CPR and the Heimlich maneuver, or by calling 911 in an emergency. MHFA teaches people to administer first aid in a mental health crisis.
The inaugural training sessions were provided by the Alpert Jewish Family and Children’s Service and the Palm Beach County Action Alliance for Mental Health. The attention of the Palm Beach Post resulted in a recent editorial by the newspaper, which included MHFA as an example of the many community based solutions that are likely to be more effective than relying on law enforcement too late in the game. A week later, the Post provided front page news coverage to a mental health conference called #OK2Talk. The conference was the finale of a series of community events where input was obtained from real people across the county. The title of the front page story was, “Mental Illness is not a crime”.
The change in focus by this daily newspaper is evidence that the message is starting to get through to those in power to help make a positive impact on our mental health system. Far too many people are not getting treatment and support because of the stigma around mental health, and far too often problems are not addressed until after something bad happens, such as an arrest. Mental illness is treatable, and the failure to focus on early identification of issues prevents far too many people from properly treating their illness, which would allow them to recover and enjoy a far better quality of life.
Early identification and community solutions for mental health are finally on the table — where they should have been all along.