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Access to mental health care still a community issue
Liberty County Sheriff Will Bowman, left, speaks with Aspire CEO Babette Hankey
Liberty County Sheriff Will Bowman, left, speaks with Aspire CEO Babette Hankey, center, and Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Tammy Mims, right. Photo by Pat Donahue

There are needs for more mental health professional and more in-depth mental health care, Liberty County Chamber of Commerce members learned Tuesday morning.

Belinda Sharp, clinic director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Aspire Health Partners, said she is learning how important mental health is in the area. She has met with local business people and elected officials to see what can be done to support mental health.

The Cohen Clinic has been open since October and provides outpatient mental health service to active-duty soldiers, veterans, National Guardsmen, reservists and their family members. And as Sharp pointed out, family members can mean more than someone related by blood or marriage.

“The military member gets to define who family is,” Sharp said. “Sometimes it is not a blood relative. Maybe it’s a neighbor or maybe it’s their best friend who is their battle buddy. We help them too. We see children. We see adults. We are going to take care of anyone who is connected to the miliary community.”

Anyone who is deemed to be in mental health crisis is seen that day, Sharp said, and they are referred to an organization, facility or hospital that can provide a higher level of care.

“They are still going to get help,” she said. “Once we figure out what those needs are, we’re going to talk to you that day and figure out what you need.”

As Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Tammy Mims and Liberty County Sheriff Will Bowman agreed, more higher-level care is needed.

“We have our emergency room and jail filled up with mental health and not receiving the most appropriate care,” Mims said. “There is a huge need for an (intensive outpatient program) and an inpatient need.”

While Winn Army Community Hospital has a 10-bed mental health unit, some mental health patients have waited up to seven days at LRMC before getting placed in another facility, Mims said.

Bowman, a veteran himself who served overseas, said he has not had any issues related from his tours of duty to combat zones.

“I was OK. I saw things I wish I hadn’t,” he said. “We still have those guys going back and forth and they are getting younger and younger. Putting them in the jail is not the answer. Our facility does not have the capability of taking care of mental health patients, but we have no choice at this point.”

But the closure of some of the state’s larger mental health facilities, and the vast reduction in the number of beds available at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, has handcuffed law enforcement, Bowman acknowledged. The issue of those in custody going into a mental health crisis is a frequent topic of discussion across law enforcement jurisdictions.

“We have a great shortage of mental health professionals in this state,” he said. “Everyone is having that issue. Shutting down Milledgeville sent the state of Georgia into a whirlwind.”

Teachers are starting to be on the front lines of mental health as more and more students have their mental health affected, through either social media or a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheriff said. The parents of a teenaged girl came to him just a few days ago to say their daughter was being bullied on social media, and the girl was considering harming herself.

“That hurt my heart,” Bowman said.

Aspire Health Partners CEO Babette Hankey said the stigma around mental health is being removed, as more people talk about it.

“As they’re talking about it, though, we have to have the access to those services,” she said, including the wraparound care management. “We have way too many deaths by suicide.”

Stable housing also is in an issue many times for those in crisis, Hankey said, and said her group is looking at ways to partner with the community, including the hospitals and law enforcement, to provide help. Hankey and other Aspire representatives are expected to be in Atlanta this week to discuss not just what the Cohen Military Family Clinics provide but also what they have seen so far.

Sharp said the clinic accepts most insurance but cost and money should not be a barrier in delivering mental health care. Those services include couples and family counseling.

The clinic’s staff is made up of veterans and military family members, Sharp pointed out.

“They understand what some of those needs or struggles are because some of them have lived it themselves,” she said. “We are thankful to be here. No one can do this alone. No one organization can do it alone.”

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