Delaware knows it needs to do more with mental health law and procedures

There are still areas that are inconsistent when it comes to Delaware’s mental health law and procedures. But one group is paying close attention to current codes ranging from commitment laws to now taking a therapeutic team approach in the community.

Some steps to modernize mental health codes here in the first state have already occurred. A good example is the Rick VanStory Resource Center in Wilmington. That’s where Gov. Jack Markell drew attention last year after signing legislation to offer more treatment options.

“That’s everything that we are, the resource center for everybody that has mental illness,” said CEO Allen Conover, who runs the Rick VanStory Resource Center.

Reforming Delaware’s mental health system remains a top priority, especially for a wide variety of stakeholders reviewing Delaware mental health law and procedures.

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“Rather than applying most of the resources in a hospital-based setting, we’re looking at how we can better fund our community, so that our community can better support individuals with mental illness,” said Secretary of the state Department of Health and Social Serivces Rita Landgraf.  

While that works for the clients at the Rick VanStory center, where close to a hundred people with some type of mental condition frequent daily, it may not work for the Bergers. Dave’s sister, who he wishes not to identify, needs a little more.

“The main challenge is getting her the level of care that she actually really needs. Right now she’s in a group home and we feel strongly that she needs to be in a nursing care facility,” said Dave Berger of Wilmington.

“One of the concerns right now with the group home is the lack of activity. There are a lot of empty hours of really not doing anything. So that’s our main concern with her, that she doesn’t sit up and watch TV all day,” added Dave’s wife Mary Berger.

Mary supports social recreation, similar to what’s offered at the RVRC, where the goal is to keep members engaged in a number of resources. It also helps that the staff can relate to many of their clients.

“I have bipolar mental illness and substance abuse problems, and this affords me an opportunity to work with my peers in helping them. I have a degree in education so I’m able to teach the GED class,” said Eric Lee who teaches at RVRC.

Such classes are definitely needed to train those who suffer from mental health conditions, making sure they receive the tools required to get a job.

“Individuals with mental illness probably have the highest rate of unemployment. It’s our belief a lot of that has to do with the stigma associated with mental illness,” said Landgraf.

That’s part of the reason why Eric says his job here comes natural.

“I’m not here to do things for people, I’m here to empower them, to help themselves in recovery, to recover from mental illness and substance abuse problems,” said Lee.

But outside of the resource center, stakeholders are also paying close attention to some commitment laws, trying not to overly confine people with mental illness.

“I believe the original intent of the outpatient commitment law was to enable people to have their services within the community, but still have the oversight of the court, but they may be archaic at this point. If they are in the community, does the court really need to mandate that level of oversight now that we are growing our robust system of care?” said Landgraf.

Current code only focused on the commitment side when people required the highest level of support.  The goal is to go in a different direction. However, psychiatrist Patricia Lifrak adds that the highest level of support may be the only option for older teens about to become young adults who typically get lost in the system.

“They age out when they turn 18. I could be seeing a patient, and the day they turn 18, I can’t see them anymore for child mental health so then it’s like what do you do with them,” said Lifrak.

Meanwhile for Conover, it’s personal.  His answer is to continue to expand services at the VanStory center that continues to grow since its debut four years ago.

“This is the best I have ever done in my entire life. I’ve been in and out of institutions sine I was 6 years old. Now this is my passion. I’m here 12-14 hours a day. This is my life helping other people and helping myself while doing it,” said Conover.

The study group reviewing the civil and criminal code regarding mental health was formed by the General Assembly last year. The group which includes a variety of stakeholders, from the clinical to legal side, is hoping to get modernized code out there by January of 2014.

The group meets about once every other month. And the different committees within the group are looking into everything from how mental illness is defined, court procedures and other due process issues. They’re even looking at mental illness and gun control, although the group was already at work before gun control became such a hot topic across the country.

The goal is to make sure people get to the right level of support whether they are committed to a facility or in the community.

Last year, thanks to legislation signed by the Gov. Markell, a new profession was created for hospital emergency rooms, called mental health screeners. They’ll be trained to identify those with mental illness and link those individuals to a variety of services in the community.

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