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County to Host Community Conversation on Mental Health Services

by on June 17, 2019 3:00 PM

An upcoming forum hosted by the Centre County Board of Commissioners will offer a look at local mental health services and provide an opportunity for the public to ask questions and offer suggestions.

The community conversation about mental health services in Centre County will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 27, on the third floor of the Courthouse Annex, 106 E. High St., Bellefonte.

Commissioner Michael Pipe said staff from the state Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the county's Office of Mental Health will give presentations about laws, regulations and policies governing mental health services in Pennsylvania and how they are implemented locally. County staff also will explain the services available in Centre County and how they are delivered.

That will be followed by an opportunity for residents to ask questions, voice concerns and participate in a discussion about mental health services.

"We’re looking forward to hearing suggestions from the community about how we can improve and enhance our mental health system here in Centre County," Pipe said at last week's commissioners meeting. "It’s an ongoing conversation about the kind of service needs we have, the kind of delivery system we have. So we want to have that dialogue."

Services for individuals experiencing mental health crises have been a focal point of community discussion and debate since the police shooting death of Osaze Osagie in March in State College. Osagie, who was diagnosed with autism, had a history of schizophrenia and anxiety. He was shot when officers went to his apartment to serve a mental health warrant and he confronted them with a knife in a narrow hallway.

His death sparked a number of questions both about state laws for mental health intervention and local police systems, policies and procedures for serving mental health warrants.

Pipe said the focus of the June 27 conversation is public mental health services, how they work and how they can be improved, but not specifically about  law enforcement policies.

"If there are conversations about law enforcement we’ll certainly touch upon how our mental health system interacts with law enforcement," he said. "In terms of specific law enforcement policies and procedures... we can’t prescribe certain policies and procedures to law enforcement, but we can work with them if it’s a mental health facet of that. We’re not going to be talking specifically about law enforcement, but if there are questions or concerns, we’ll partner with law enforcement to answer those questions to the best of our ability."

He added that State College Borough is forming a task force that, in part, will look at and make recommendations for practices of law enforcement and other agencies in responding to mental health calls.

Commissioner Steve Dershem said he is looking forward to a conversation that will increase understanding about the services that are available.

"We need to have a clearinghouse from kind of the horse’s mouth talking about the whole discussion of mental health delivery in Centre County — what they can and can’t do, what the procedures are," Dershem said. "I think it will be a healthy conversation and an educational one for a lot of folks in the community."

Pipe said that although the forum is scheduled to last for two hours, staff and commissioners will stay to answer as many questions as come up.

"It’s such a complex system, and we want to be able to clear up a lot of questions and concerns," he said. "Then we’re also going to talk about next steps. So after we’re done with the questions, done with the presentations, we’re going to have time to say, 'How do we move forward from here? What do we want to focus on, what do we want to work on?'"

One potentially new aspect of mental health service in Centre County is a possible walk-in crisis center. The county recently received three proposals for a site-based program that would allow individuals in crisis to be seen at a location by mental health professionals.

"While some people wind up going to the emergency room for a variety of medical reasons as well as mental health, this would allow individuals who might not need a medical examination to be seen in a crisis," said Natalie Corman, Centre County director of Mental Health/Intellectual Disability/Early Intervention.

Corman said a committee will review the proposals before bringing back a recommendation to the commissioners.

That kind of service is needed in Centre County, said Geoff Landers-Nolan, a local counselor who addressed the commissioners separately about mental health service needs in the county.

"What I’d like to suggest is that crisis center should include a phone component," he said. "Part of what is a challenge for workers with Can Help [which provides county crisis intervention services] is that they are focused on the most severe crises, people who are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Because of that people who just need someone to talk to — they’re feeling really anxious, really depressed but they’re not suicidal or homicidal — they can call Can Help and they can get a certain amount of help, but that worker really needs to keep the line clear in case the next person who is at the point of swallowing that bottle of pills might need help immediately."

Landers-Nolan said Centre County is fortunate to have a high number of therapy practitioners, but there is little in between the lower intensity of weekly, hourlong therapy sessions and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. Intensive outpatient services and partial hospitalization programs could help to bridge that gap, he said.

He also suggested that there are a few ways to further support Can Help's crisis services. Crisis workers usually don't have advanced degrees and are in what is usually a low-paying, high-stress job. They learn on the job and while that prepares them well for the work they do, Landers-Nolan said it often leads them to not seeing themselves as the expert who should take the lead when interacting with police and medical staff in a crisis situation.

"Crisis workers have specific mental health training and de-escalation training that is often incredibly important to de-escalating a situation and to getting other professionals the full picture of what’s happening," he said. "But a person who is not seeing themselves or is not seen by others as an expert may not be in a place that they feel like they should step in. They may not be in a place where they feel like they should take the lead on de-escalating.

"As a result, I think it’s possible we have other professionals who are experts in their own field, but not necessarily understanding the full breadth of what’s happening for someone in a mental health crisis. And that can lead to escalation, rather than de-escalation in a crisis."

Landers-Nolan said he would like to see the county work with Penn State and other institutions that are training mental health professionals on ways that train crisis workers to be empowered to be the expert in a crisis situation.

"...Crisis services are so key," he said. "It’s where the mental health system and all the other systems that deal with public safety interact. If that’s not handled from an expert position, then there’s the possibility for that to fall by the wayside."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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