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Local Government

Advocates seek to reduce stigma, increase access for mental health, addiction services

'We need to start talking about this. This is reality'

GENEVA – Imagine a world where a person with a mental illness or a drug addiction could access care without stigma – the same way if someone broke his leg and did not have to be ashamed of his cast.

That is the world envisioned by The Kennedy Forum, said Cheryl Potts, the Illinois Forum director at a mental health forum hosted by the Geneva 708 Mental Health Board on May 14.

“The Kennedy Forum was started about five years ago,” Potts said. “It was started by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who was the representative from Rhode Island and also the son of Ted Kennedy. He was very open about his struggle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse.”

Patrick Kennedy was also very open about the reason he left office: He would have died, Potts said, because of the stigma associated with mental health and addiction.

“He would have died because he could not engage in receiving services while a congressman because he was so fearful of people finding out and especially because he was a Kennedy,” Potts said.

Patrick Kennedy left office and started The Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit to influence policy and to elevate advocacy about mental health and substance abuse disorders in order o remove stigma and discrimination, Potts said.

“And create access to treatment for those who need it,” Potts said. “They are disorders. They are not decisions. ... We firmly believe that mental health and substance abuse disorders are chronic disorders of the brain. … So we approach our advocacy from that perspective. And we truly see the whole person when we are trying to advocate for treatment.”

About 40 people attended the forum, which was held at the Geneva council chambers at city hall. Those attending included representatives of agencies that provide mental health and substance abuse services, Mayor Kevin Burns, 5th Ward Alderman Robert Swanson and Carolyn Weigel, chairwoman of the St. Charles 708 Mental Health Board.

Though Weigel is also president of the St. Charles District 303 school board, she said she was at the meeting in her capacity on the St. Charles Mental Health Board.

The Kennedy Forum project in Illinois is an initiative to accelerate action in the state.

“We coordinate groups like this,” Potts said. “Let’s look at the issues in our community. Let’s pick apart what our barriers are, and let’s think about what the solutions are, so we can start to carry forward. ... My hope is that this conversation does not end here. The most effective way to end stigma and discrimination are in face-to-face conversations.”

Potts asked what those present were seeing in your community.

One problem is drug use by high school students, Weigel said.

“Almost every kid that goes through our high schools – Geneva, St. Charles – I’m going to say their use is 70% … has tried or is currently using some illegal drug,” Weigel said. “It’s mostly pills. It’s heroin – yes  – but there’s a lot of Vicodin and Norco. ... Our kids are using it. They’re coming to school high.”

Weigel said the youth use drugs to control their anxiety and depression.

“We need to start talking about this,” Weigel said. “This is reality. It’s OK, we just want to help. That is our message.”

The average number of days for someone to become addicted to a prescription opioid is five days, Potts said, blaming it on over-prescribing by doctors coupled with under-education about opioids.

“And we wonder why we’re in an epidemic,” Potts said.

One of the goals in Illinois and in general by The Kennedy Forum is to achieve parity in insurance coverage to treat mental illness and addiction.

Geneva resident Jean Pierce, vice president of both the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County and the Illinois League of Women Voters said one of the issues is there are not enough doctors to treat people who seek mental health services.

“The (state) funding for human services has been cut 22% since 2000,” Pierce said.

Potts said significant work is being done in Springfield to address these issues.

“First of all, in the state of Illinois, we need to rewrite the mental health code, period,” Potts said. “The current mental health code is from early ‘70s and it’s completely out of tune. Secondly, all the reimbursement rates need to go up.”

Potts said one of the problems in Illinois with having enough psychiatrists is the low reimbursement rates.

“It’s all connected,” Potts said. “We are working to implement significant changes.”

Suzy Shogren, chairwoman of the Geneva Mental Health Board, said one way is to have one person in a church speak to the congregation about their struggle with mental illness and addiction, in order to highlight the issue and reduce the stigma.

“If there’s one thing everyone of us walking out the door can do, it’s to try to reduce the stigma,” Shogren said.

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