From left: Sheriff Brad Burkhart; Steve Long, CEO of Hancock Regional Hospital; County Commissioner Marc Huber; County Councilman Jim Shelby
HANCOCK COUNTY — The emergency call for help came from McCordsville. The family couldn’t control their teenage daughter, who was violent and had a history of mood disorders. These types of calls are no longer unusual in the life of first-responders. They are, in fact, occurring on a daily basis throughout the county.
No single organization is prepared to handle the increasing need to identify and work with people suffering mental illness. It’s why several community leaders have come together to try and create some type of road map to confront the problem and find solutions.
The group includes Sheriff Brad Burkhart; Steve Long, CEO of Hancock Regional Hospital; County Commissioner Marc Huber; and County Councilman Jim Shelby.
The four community leaders asked representatives from the justice system and health and community service programs to be a part of the undertaking. They met last week with the committee to go over their suggestions and start figuring out ways to tackle mental illness countywide.
“The whole issue of mental health and substance abuse has been around for a long time and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Long said.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to 2019 statistics, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. Statistics show one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
Long and other community leaders feel mental health issues are almost like a “second pandemic” and must be addressed. Burkhart wants solutions that help those who often wind up incarcerated because of their mental illness and addictions.
“It’s always kind of been something the jails have had to battle with ever since state officials shut down mental health hospitals in the middle 90s,” Burkhart said.
Many of the people who might have been sent to a mental health facility in the past end up homeless or in jail, and to Burkhart, that’s not a good solution. He said prevention is the key.
Some of the early preventive measures they’ve talked about include involving schools to identify those who might have mental health issues at an early age. Officials have also talked about gathering data on the number of mental health issues reported through the 911 center and perhaps creating a mental health response team that would be able to quickly assist when an issue arises.
“We’ve got to start getting people with mental health issues help before things get bad and they end up in jail, because once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out,” Burkhart said.
Burkhart noted they won’t solve the issue unless the whole community works together to deal with it.
“COVID really did enhance some of the issues people are dealing with, and so this is a good time to really dive into the issue,” Burkhart said.
Shelby said the goal of the group and the committee — composed of people who are in the field working every day with people who have mental illness — is to look at all the mental health needs in the county and try to come up with solutions to answer the issues, including funding for programs.
“We’ve got some good recommendations from our committee, and we’ve asked them to go back and add a little more meat to those recommendations, but we’ll talk about them in the upcoming budget meetings,” Shelby said.
The county for years has spent money on policing, educating officers on how to deal with people with mental issues, but now county officials want to be more proactive and get at the source of mental health issues and find real solutions.
“This is a chance for us to look at prevention,” Shelby said.
Huber, who approached Long about county officials working together to establish a strategy, said the group will meet again with its committee at the end of the month and see what kind of financial numbers are associated with getting a full mental health plan in place.
“All we know right now is there is a need we have to address,” Huber said. “We’ve got to have a good plan that can get service to people who need it.”
Huber noted the project is going to take some time to establish, but that it’s worth any kind of financial investment the county can make.
“We’ll see some success stories and some failures once we get things going, but to really make a long-term gain on this, we’re talking about seeing real progress dealing with mental health issues in five to 10 years,” Huber said. “We just know we cannot incarcerate people out of mental health issues.”
Long admitted in reality no amount of money in the world can solve mental health issues. Rather, the community needs to band together and approach them. He said there must be a targeted approach where they can make the biggest difference for the most people. The hospital foundation has a fundraising campaign going on right now that focuses on supporting mental health programs. He said Hancock Health delved deeply into an assessment of mental health care a few years ago and found navigators are needed.
“When folks are mired with addictions and mental health issues, they have difficulties doing life, and they need someone to stand alongside of them and put their arm around them and say, ‘Come along,’” Long said. “That navigation component is key, which can include counseling or medication.”
Some of those practices are already in place, Long said, but it’s time to develop resources even more with county partners, including the judicial system.
“No one organization is going to be able to solve this problem,” Long said. “We’ve all got to work together.”
Burkhart noted the mental health system is overwhelmed with not enough trained professionals in the area and that even health professionals struggle with finding their patients appointments.
“They’re just so busy, and that’s one of the things I don’t know how we get past that,” Burkhart said. “That’s why the prevention side of things is so important.”
How to get help
A number of organizations in Hancock County can assist with mental health issues. Here is a list:
Healthy365 Connections Center
Mental Health Partners of Hancock County
98 E. North St., Greenfield
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Rugged Grace Counseling
317-698-3599 and 317-586-2261
1551 E. New Road, Greenfield (inside Brandywine Community Church)
Primary care physicians also can refer patients for care at a number of medical practices in the county that offer mental health treatment. For a listing of 24-hour help lines, support groups and counseling centers, visit: behealthy365.org/about/system-of-care