Calhoun County could one day have space made available for the care of one additional mental health patient if a local mental health advocacy group is able to secure the money for it. The group, Out of the Shadows Summit Committee, is focused on ending the stigma of mental illness.
The committee held its third annual summit Friday at the Oxford Civic Center, where more than 345 mental health professionals and members of the community attended.
“The next step is to work toward getting more inpatient beds available in our county for people who are in crisis,” summit organizer Brenda Stedham said. “There are 16 beds that the Highland Health has, but that’s not nearly enough.”
Stedham said the group is working to secure funding to pay for facilities for a single mental health patient at Regional Medical Center, augmenting the 16 beds available at Highland Health in Alexandria. Local officials have often said the Calhoun County doesn’t have enough space for mental health patients who need inpatient treatment.
Stedham, an Anniston attorney, said the focus of the summit was to discuss how to advance the conversation on mental illness in Alabama communities, a conversation she said became more important to her when she lost a friend to suicide four years ago.
Stedham said the state’s lack of funding for community mental health programs and the long wait times to enter inpatient mental health care have led to an increase in the number of people in Alabama prisons.
“What happens is somebody gets into a crisis situation, and they begin to break the law,” Stedham said. “And because there are no beds, they end up in jail or they end up in prison. And that’s the wrong place for them to be.”
State Rep. K. L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, said he expects Alabama legislators to be called back to Montgomery by the end of the year to discuss the state’s prison issue, which he said he believes could be remedied by addressing mental health in the state.
“It’s unfortunate that in the whole state, prisons and local jails are the stopping place,” Brown said. “The whole mental health system across the state needs to be overhauled.”
It’s a topic with which Brown has some familiarity. During the summit’s opening comments, Brown shared that a daughter had bipolar disorder.
“That’s how this all started. A very diverse group got together and decided this was really important,” Stedham said. “Our goal is to end the stigma surrounding mental illness to our communities.”
Carol Kivler, this year’s keynote speaker, said the stigma surrounding shock therapy caused her to keep her treatments a secret for many years. She said she suffers from depression and anxiety, including suicidal thoughts, which landed her in a psychiatric ward in 1990.
“When I flipped the switch from mental illness to mental wellness, my life changed,” Kivler said. “The biggest thing that helped was, in order to heal, I needed to reveal.”
Kivler said accepting her diagnosis and committing to a treatment plan helped her through her recovery.
Several breakout sessions also focused on helping Alabama communities end the stigma surrounding mental illness, including sessions on the myths of psychiatric medications, mental health in communities of faith and testimonies from families who lost loved ones to mental illness.
The Rev. Dale Clem, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Anniston, said the church needs to focus on helping people deal with mental illness.
“Sometimes in the church, we do harm without realizing it,” Clem said. “The church can do a great good by being a structure for friendship and support. It has been proved that people who have people praying for them, who have a support system, get out of the hospital earlier.”
The Rev. Fred Smith, pastor of Bridge Christian Center, said there should be a “bridge between the pew and the pulpit” regarding mental illness.
“There is a place for mental illness in the church,” Smith said. “We need to realize that maybe we need more help. The problem is greater than a generality, so we should know where to send people when they come to us for help.”
Clem and other pastors said they want to urge members of faith communities to speak with their religious leaders on issues of mental health and seek out mental health professionals who can better handle their situations.
“It’s helpful for members of my congregation to tell me what their life is like,” Clem said.