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Dealing with mental instability: Help is available

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When these incidents make the news, we need to remember that they are rare. Most folks suffering with mental illness are not much more dangerous than any of the rest of us. You don’t want to stigmatize them. – Tim Whalen

SALT LAKE CITY — Mental health professionals say incidents such as the 4 ½-hour standoff in Millcreek between police and a man officers described as "mentally unstable" are few in number.

"When these incidents make the news, we need to remember that they are rare. Most folks suffering with mental illness are not much more dangerous than any of the rest of us. You don't want to stigmatize them," said Tim Whalen, director of mental health for Salt Lake County Behavioral Health Services.

Although the event ended without incident Sunday evening, police initially feared that the man had planted explosive devices in his neighbors' yards. SWAT team members took the suspect, David Baker, into custody. His mental state remained a part of the investigation.

Mary Talboys, a licensed clinical social worker and director of services for the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, said Sunday's events need to be kept in perspective.

"First of all, we have to realize they are very out of the ordinary," Talboys said. The vast majority of mental health patients are served in their own communities with appropriate supports and live productive lives, she said.

Meanwhile, partners such as the University of Utah, Salt Lake County and law enforcement are devoting significant resources to help people in crisis with the goal of channeling them to appropriate levels of care.

Some people simply need someone to talk them through a difficult moment in their lives. People who may be a danger to themselves or others may need to be involuntarily held in a psychiatric hospital. Here again, the latter cases are the exception to the broad spectrum of people who need mental health services, Talboys said.

For help, call the crisis line at 801-587-3000. The line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Licensed mental health professionals are available to help people in crisis as well as friends and family members who want to help loved ones experiencing a crisis.

From 3 to 11 p.m. each day, peer counselors — people in recovery from a diagnosed mental illness who undergo training to assist others — also are available to offer support to callers.

Earlier this year, the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Salt Lake County officials announced the addition of mobile mental health crisis response teams made up of a licensed mental health professional and a certified peer specialist. The teams can be dispatched anywhere in the county — homes, businesses, schools, for example — to help a person in crisis.

The goal of the initiative is to meet people where they are most comfortable, leverage family or community supports to help the person, and help cut down on the numbers of people who end up in jail or other settings. The vast majority of mental health patients can be served in their own communities with appropriate supports.

Whalen said assessments are made to determine whether law enforcement should accompany the crisis team on calls. The team was not called out Sunday in the case of David Baker.

"With behavioral health issues, we always want to err on the side of safety," he said.

A growing number of law enforcement agencies, too, are training officers to better address people in crisis through the statewide Crisis Intervention Training program.

While local governments and health care providers are making concerted efforts to better target their resources, the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health's 2011 annual report suggests a significant disparity between mental health resources and estimated needs.

The report said more than 101,600 adults and children in Utah are in need of mental health treatment services but not receiving them.

"The public mental health treatment system served approximately 45,085 individuals or less than 31 percent of the current need," the report said.

Location and funding are impediments, although some people who could benefit from care are reluctant to seek it. "Stigma around mental health continues to be another factor why people do not seek services even though a need exists," the report said.

While mental health professionals and advocates have made progress in educating the public about mental illness, they continue to fight the stigma.

"Some people have to be pretty desperate before they will go to an emergency room," Talboys said.

University Neuropsychiatric Institute has for decades offered tours of its facilities to further public understanding about mental illness and the resources the university and other community partners provide.

"Simply bringing people to see what a psychiatric hospital looks like has been helpful. It's not 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" she said.

"The problem with mental illness is, you can't see it. If you have a broken leg, people see it and they empathize."

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com