Filed Under:  Health & Wellness

Panel discusses mental health and race in N.O.

27th July 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry told the dozens assembled at the New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City on Tuesday, June 20 the story of Alfred Postell, picked up for homelessness in Washington D.C. and charged with sleeping outside a building. Postell wished to defend himself in court, having graduated from Harvard Law school in 1978—alongside Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. “Even with all his intelligence,” DeBerry came to his point, “he ended up on the streets in a very desperate situation.”

In honor of national Minority Mental Health Month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted this panel regarding mental health and race in New Orleans. Led by DeBerry, the discussion, titled Minorities Use Mental Health Services Much Less than White Counterparts with Disastrous Consequences, also featured Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, forensic psychiatrist and New Orleans Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, NAMI board member and licensed professional counselor Chantrelle Varnado-Johnson, plus Charlotte Parent, director of health for the City of New Orleans, and Lisa Romback, NAMI’s local executive director.

Deberry began with a broad question: “What’s the difference between a white person and a person of color receiving treatment?” According to the NAMI, 40 percent of whites will seek mental health services, down 15 percent for African Americans and Latinos to about 25 percent, and even less for Asians. Because, NAMI claims, homelessness, family trauma, crime, and addiction all have roots in untreated mental health issues, New Orleans in particular would benefit from focusing on mental health.

Dr. Rouse, who ran the mental health division of the coroner’s office following Hurricane Katrina, explained that he and his office exist partly to help people get mental health aid. “One thing unique to NOLA: the coroners are also the goalies so to speak, the last ditch effort in someone not hurting themselves or others through substance abuse and mental illness,” Dr. Rouse explained. “It’s always better to want to get help…but some people don’t want the treatment…so as a last ditch effort a person can call the coroners office at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning or whatever, and we can start walking that person through the process of getting someone involuntarily committed.” Though extreme sounding, an order of protective custody, as it’s called, protects those with mental health issues from being labeled criminals, says Dr. Rouse: “An OPC is not a criminal charge and doesn’t go on a person’s record. It’s to get people into the treatment system so they don’t end up in jail…or in the back of my office. It’s kind of like an order to the police department so they pick the person up and take them to the hospital, not arrest them.”

The panel acknowledged that mental health issues are often exacerbated here in the world’s incarceration capitol, where police seemingly look for any excuse to throw a Black man in jail. “Why did they bring [the mentally ill] to jail?” asked Judge Johnson, who created the state’s first mental health treatment court. “We have no other place to take them—while other urban areas do. A mentally ill person will stay in jail longer and have a worse outcome than [an actual criminal] charged with the same thing. Mental illness makes everything more difficult.”

Dr. Rouse explained that since the NOPD’s federally mandated consent decree came down, new police recruits have been mandated specific crisis intervention training teaching regarding how to treat the mentally ill. “Once they are trained, it does help to decrease the number of individuals that go to jail. The challenge is to get the officers who are already on the force the training,” said Dr. Rouse, who claims he has been seeing a difference. “I am going to say a cautious yes. I think the police have made strides toward professionalism. I believe the problem is being tackled from all the angles it needs to be… Though we are not there yet.”

Charlotte Parent, the director of health for the City of New Orleans talked about the role of the city’s health department as the recent facilitators via the Behavioral Health Council. Parent told the audience, “The New Orleans Mental Health Dashboard gives monthly updates on what we have available, what mental health services are being utilized, and other trends: Are there increases in calls to police? Enough services for children? While we don’t provide direct care, what can we do to let people know what’s out there?” Parent alerted the audience to the city’s “Family Guide” resource (for families with nowhere to turn), the CAP Community Assistance Program (which helps divert those who’ve been arrested into the mental health system, and helps get their charges dropped).

Almost every panelist brought up the problem of getting the word out. It seems letting people know what mental health options are available and how to navigate them is as big of a problem as not having enough options. Most folks don’t know what is accessible or how they would pay for it.

The panel eventually took questions from the likes of Andrea Adams, director of nursing at Charity Hospital for 15 years, in charge of reestablishing mental health services at St. Paul hospital. Adams’ husband, an attorney, was killed on the streets. Her daughter’s boyfriend died in her daughter’s arms during a drive-by. “Had it not been for my knowledge of the mental health system and connections we would have never made it through,” Adams admitted. Idella Johnson, producer of the play “Riding Haley’s Comet” and sibling of a murder victim, wondered aloud about the families of murder victims. Janet Hayes of Healing Minds NOLA mentioned StepUp?, “Because lack of facilities has made mental health a criminal justice problem.”

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