Mental health center meeting the needs of its target population, say company representatives

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, May 14, 2022

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In observance of this, The Valley Times-News reached out to East Alabama Mental Health Center to get an idea of how well mental illness is handled in Chambers County. EAMHC Executive Director Jimmie Dickey and Clinical Director Bronwyn Ramsey responded together in a letter format.

Dickey and Ramsey said they could only speak for their own staff (They said there are several private mental health providers in the area), but EAMHC is doing fairly well at treating its target population. This is in spite of the fact that EAMHC has seen a significant increase in demand for mental health services and treatment for substance use disorders over the past few years.

Members of EAMHC’s target population are those with serious mental illnesses, serious emotional disturbances, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities.

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“We are able to meet the needs of these specific populations through the comprehensive nature of services we offer,” Dickey and Ramsey said. “However, it is worth noting that we do refer to and rely on private providers in the community to meet the needs of those who do not meet statutorily and clinically established criteria for serious mental illness.”

Though things have been going fairly smoothly for EAMHC, it has faced some challenges. Funding is a major concern for mental health centers in general, they said, adding that EAMHC serves as a public safety net for Lee, Russell, Chambers and Tallapoosa Counties.

“This mission typically manifests itself in 80 percent [of] our consumer population having household incomes below $10,000 per year and nearly 90 percent below $20,000,” they said. “Additionally, we do not refuse services to anyone meeting clinical criteria based on inability to pay. Instead, we base the charges for their services on a very generous sliding fee scale so as to mitigate any perceived barriers to the services the community needs.”

Dickey and Ramsey said that last year, EAMHC provided over $2.6 million in uncompensated care to the community with over $400,000 of that being specifically for citizens of Chambers County.

“In the past, this underfunding has resulted in significant changes in recruiting new staff,” they said. “However, we have very recently taken some aggressive, intentional action to close the gap in wages that we can offer new staff in order to be competitive with other potential employers. When you combine this with our very generous benefits package, we are very hopeful to make some significant strides in increasing our staffing this year.”

The most significant barrier EAMHC sees to people getting the mental health care they need is stigma.

“We have certainly seen improvements over the past few years, but there is still substantial work to be done in educating the community about the benefits of individuals having a high-quality provider to partner with in addressing their mental health needs,” Dickey and Ramsey said.

Another obstacle faced by the population EAMHC serves is a lack of transportation.

“While we do have the ability to assist some, many in our community must rely on friends, family and neighbors to access services,” they said.

Dickey and Ramsey said that many individuals in jails and prisons have a history of mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

“According to recent studies, well over half of incarcerated individuals have experienced some type of mental health or substance use issue,” they said. “What that means is that approximately 2 million times each year across the country, individuals who have serious mental illness are admitted to jails.”

Dickey and Ramsey said almost three-quarters of these adults also have co-occuring substance use disorders.

“The worst part of this is that if left untreated, the risk of reincarceration is significantly higher for these individuals, creating needless stress for them and their families as well as unnecessary overburdening in our jails,” they said. “Through the diligent work of the Chambers County Commission and Chambers County Jail, we have been able to place a case manager in the jail who has the sole purpose of identifying individuals in need of mental health services and linking them to our providers upon release.”

EAMHC offers services to Chambers County residents through several locations.

“We operate an outpatient clinic for adults and children in Valley, Alabama,” they said. “Counseling services are provided by skilled therapists. Additionally, psychiatric services performed by physicians and/or physician-supervised nurse practitioners are available to manage medications and psychiatric symptoms.”

Dickey and Ramsey said EAMHC provides outpatient services in LaFayette in the Chambers County Department of Human Resources building for those struggling with substance use disorders. EAMHC also contracts with local schools to provide in-school counseling services.

“In addition to these facility-based services, we deliver a variety of intensive, community or home-based support services based on the specific needs of consumers,” they said.