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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about addressing mental health illnesses and finding resources in Cabarrus County.

CABARRUS COUNTY -- More than 43 million Americans suffer from a mental health illness and more than 56 percent of them are struggling to find access to care, according to a study conducted by Mental Health America.

Mental health illnesses are found in schools, hospitals, jails and around your community.

Behind the scenes are county and city leaders are working together to combat the issue.

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Resources to get help

Cabarrus County Crisis Support: http://bit.ly/cabcocrisisinfo

Mental Health America of Central Carolinas: https://www.mhacentralcarolinas.org/communityoutreach.cfm

About Coffee and Conversations: https://app.etapestry.com/cart/MentalHealthAssociationofC_2/default/category.php?ref=1801.0.289218627

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Let’s talk about mental health

In Cabarrus County, the board of commissioners rounded up a Mental Health Advisory Board, which is a group of 30 or so professionals who respond to or provide mental health services in the county, constantly working to find new solutions to treat people suffering from mental health problems.

“As the issues continue to grow in the county, the board understood we need to pull people together that can help solve the problem,” Cabarrus County Manager Mike Downs said.

Individuals on the board represent the school system, hospital, county and city governments, Emergency Management System, and groups such as Cardinal Innovations and Daymark.

The Cabarrus County government made mental health one of its main focal points in 2016, and while the discussions may not be on every meeting agenda, the issue at hand is always being talked about.

“I think it was great forethought and foresight to say this is a thing and we have this problem,” Cabarrus County EMS Assistant Director Justin Brines said. “It’s the right thing to do for the citizens of this county. It’s the right thing for folks who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse. We know the fragmentation it can cause with families.”

By creating the Mental Health Advisory Board, the county and the Cabarrus Health Alliance are on a mission to raise awareness, improve access to care and improve crisis response.

“This gets everyone around the table, everybody hearing the same thing and being able to interact and discuss with each other, which I think is quite unique,” Cabarrus County Board Chair Steve Morris said. 

In 2018, the county joined the national Stepping Up initiative, which provides assistance and counseling for those accused of crimes, who have mental health issues or drug addictions, and connects them with resources for treatment and recovery.

“Having a mental illness is not a crime but a lot of folks that have a mental illness engage in behavior that causes them to be arrested or go a foul of the norms of society, so the only option is that they go to jail,” Morris said. “The Stepping Up program is in the jail where they go and receive counseling and make appointments for them when they are released. Part of that is to stop that revolving door.”

Beyond the Mental Health Advisory Board, there are three task forces that assist in finding and identifying ways of treatment – Access to Resources/Care (they look for resources and information that are available for the community); Crisis Response (they offer ideas that remove barriers that prevent people from receiving care, such as costs); Public Awareness (they provide education and outreach to the community that promotes services and ways to find care).

“There are a lot of good things happening in Cabarrus County,” Cabarrus County Communications and Outreach Manager Kasia Thompson said. “We are not a utopia. We don’t ignore our challenges. What we do is recognize our challenges and move forward on them.”

County leaders say it is important to address mental health is because it could save lives.

Commissioners have approved funding for nine mental health workers in local schools over the past couple of years.

“It’s still not enough. (School officials) think there needs to be one in every school,” Downs said.

The county also approved hiring a mental health navigator that helps clients and staff to navigate through the system to figure out which direction to go and who’s providing what service.

More needs to be done

While they’ve made progress, Downs said there is a lot more work left to do.

There’s still not enough beds at facilities and they need a better response system.

“I think we’ve taken a good step forward. I think from our collective awareness, there’s been a lot of work done and a lot of information passed,” Downs said. “But is there more to go? Oh yes, there’s a tremendous amount more to go.”

Commissioner Morris attended a workshop to learn about how other agencies have implemented the data-driven justice models, which provides strategies that promote better outcomes for frequent utilizers by aligning justice, health and human services systems around data. 

“They have gone to special lengths to coordinate the 911 center, the EMS, the police department so that they are all sharing this information,” Morris said. “They have a mental health crisis center in their community that’s very well connected with these other resources, so when EMS goes out to that house, they know exactly what they are dealing with. They know exactly what the situation has been in the past. They have resources at this crisis center they can call to come out to a site.”

Morris said the Cabarrus County is interested and researching how to replicate the program locally.

Finding help

County officials say some of the deterrents for people with mental health are the costs associated with treatment, from medication to talking to a psychologist.

“I think No. 1, promote awareness,” Downs said. “If you have those issues, where can you go? Where is that care and how do you access it? Is it local or is it state? The ultimate goal is, those individuals who have those issues, for them to have care and help them get better as a result of that care.”

Amazing Grace Advocacy, founded by Gwen Bartley, provides navigation support from people up to 21 years old. The National Alliance on Mental Illness will direct adults in the right direction.

“The one thing we’ve done in Cabarrus County specifically is, we have a very proactive county government that is trying to help these families and trying to understand where the gaps and needs are,” Bartley said. “I work throughout the state and I can say that Cabarrus County is a leader in this.”

For those struggling to pay for mental health care treatment, call the Cardinal Innovations at 1-800-939-5911.

Mental Health America of Central Carolinas conducts education and outreach programs to promote mental health wellness.

MHA hosts Mental Health First Aid sessions for adults and youth, and also leads a monthly dialogue called Coffee & Conversation which is meant to “increase understanding and awareness about mental health, to ultimately break the stigma of seeking help when needed.” 

Local alliances and law enforcement collaborated on a brochure that provides resources to call and talks about signs of distress and suicide, signs of possible overdose and how to address the issues.

Signs of distress and crisis, according to local law enforcement, are:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for ways to commit suicide or searching methods online
  • Unable to get rid of troubling thoughts
  • Feeling hopeless and numb
  • Claims to have no reason to live
  • Feels trapped and/or is in unbearable emotional pain
  • Talks about being a burden to others
  • Withdraws from people or things
  • Feels isolated or fights with family and friends
  • Increases alcohol or drug use
  • Acts anxious or agitated and behaves recklessly
  • Shows rage or talks about seeking revenge
  • Sleeps or eats too little or too much
  • Displays extreme mood swings
  • Feels unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared
  • Has trouble performing daily tasks.
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