Safe Communities forum discusses mental health

Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala
Marcus Ervin, from left, William Jefferson, Lt. Karl Odenthal and Leslie McCowan discuss the experiences that helped form their beliefs about mental health. The roundtable discussion was part of the “Community Cafe” hosted on Thursday by Aiken Public Safety to examine the issue of mental health in the community.
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Marcus Ervin, from left, William Jefferson, Lt. Karl Odenthal and Leslie McCowan discuss the experiences that helped form their beliefs about mental health. The roundtable discussion was part of the “Community Cafe” hosted on Thursday by Aiken Public Safety to examine the issue of mental health in the community.

Cheryl Cummings held up a list of about 10 mental health care providers in the Aiken County.

“That's all we have,” she told the room of about two-dozen people. “What can we do about that? It starts tonight.”

Cummings, a counselor at Stairway Counseling Services, was a speaker at the “Community Cafe” hosted by the Aiken Department of Public Safety and the Aiken Safe Communities Action Team on Thursday night.

The purpose of the cafe was to open a dialog about how mental health in Aiken County impacts the Safe Communities Initiative, and to make people aware of the services that are available.

Probate Judge Angela Little went over the processes of emergency mental health admission to a hospital for a loved one, which she said are performed by the probate court at no cost.

“The fact that someone is mentally ill is not … the criteria,” she said. “It's someone who's homicidal or suicidal.”

Little also discussed how to obtain a guardianship or a conservatorship, both of which, along with involuntary commitment, fall under probate court.

Throughout her presentation, Little fielded questions from mental health care providers and consumers who were in attendance on Thursday. Some had questions about the process, such as how an indigent patient pays for services, and others mentioned encountering challenges going through a process.

After Little's presentation, the attendees broke off into groups for roundtable discussions of several questions, including what shaped their beliefs about mental health. The answers ranged from careers and media exposure to spiritual beliefs and the widespread nature of mental health issues in a community.

The number of answers grew when attendees were asked about the mental health concerns they have seen in their community, which included a lack of sustainable resources, a lack of awareness of the available resources and breakdowns in procedures such as reporting mentally ill people to state authorities to prevent them from purchasing firearms.

The last question asked what outcomes the attendees want to see regarding mental health care in the community, and the answer was clear: more.

In addition to more funding, awareness and media attention, the attendees said they wanted to see more education, more professionalism in the mental health care agencies and even an in-house mental health professional for police agencies.

After the discussion, some attendees got one-on-one advice for dealing with issues.

Cummings said she was pleased not only with the number of mental health providers and consumers at the meeting, but with how engaged they were.

“From what we heard tonight, there are some people who are struggling who have a lot of barriers to the mental health system here, and they're turning,” she said. “They're asking for help. As a service provider, I need to hear these stories.”

Cummings said she was shocked at the low number of results when she did an Internet search of mental health care providers in Aiken County.

“It's not going to change overnight,” she said. “We need to start having some dialog as service providers and as a community. The community is crying out, 'We want help, we need help, I've been turned away. What processes are there for me to get my loved one help?'”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.

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