As part of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System Inc. encourages the community to stand up to the stigma against mental illness.

On May 17, Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System Inc. opened the doors to its 2500 Rike Ave facility for a public discussion about mental health awareness followed by a balloon release.

“We must address the issues of mental illness,” said Noel F. Bryant, SABHS board chairperson.

Bryant explained that the purpose of the facility is to assist people in the community and lead them on a road to recovery.

“Recovery is possible at this center,” Bryant assured.

Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System Inc. works day in and out to help five counties: Arkansas, Cleveland, Grant, Jefferson and Lincoln. The goal is to educate people on the fact that mental illness is the same as any other illness.

“And that’s okay,” said Kathy Harris, SABHS president and CEO.

According to Harris, the facility provides resources in an individual’s own community, which is not only cost-effective but allows the individual to maintain their local support system.

Volunteers make up a majority of SABHS’s team and are a helping hand-in-hand, making sure that treatments are right for the community. These efforts are stopping people from feeling like there is no hope so that they can be on their way to a healthy, rewarding life, mental health officials agree.

Reverend Daniel W. Johnson shared a story about his experience with mental illness when he found out his own mother had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after suffering a breakdown.

Johnson and his mother were on the lam for two days until authorities arrested her following a traffic stop and institutionalized her in Benton. Johnson and his other two siblings were sent to live in foster homes, separating them from their mother for years.

After being institutionalized for some time, Johnson got the chance to see his mother for the first time and said he realized two things.

“Treatment works, and recovery is possible,” Johnson said. “And God is good.”

Johnson told the audience that there is no shame in mental illness, and it is important to educate yourself about mental health. He also encouraged individuals to get their family members to somebody who can help.

Bessie Lancelin, director of Clinical Services, broke down the process of referring unwilling family members to resources in their community that would help them. According to Lancelin, a person over the age of 18 can file an involuntary petition if they have witnessed homicidal, suicidal or other visible signs that show that an individual is mentally disturbed.

Someone at the SABHS facility can sign the petition, and police will pick the individual up for an evaluation. She informed guests that there is also a process for those who suffer from substance abuse.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington stopped by to join the event and share a few remarks on behalf of SABHS’s efforts in the community.

Washington expressed the importance of saving children, which, she said, starts by saving the whole community.

“There are so many children with mental illness and learning disabilities that parents try to hide”, Washington said.

Having a son who had a lesion on his brain, Washington knew how important it was to support him and treat him normally despite claims from family that he would never be independent.

Washington thanked SABHS and let the team know that the community appreciates them for helping to make Pine Bluff “that home, that place we can all be proud of.”

Washington wasn’t the only mother in the room who shared the concern for mental health in children.

Valerie Walker, current patient and a mother, filed a complaint with the White Hall School District in 2013 for holding her son back with no evidence of failure.

The school described Walker’s son as being too immature to advance to the next grade despite his passing scores and exceptionally high IQ.

Walker would later find out that her son had an attention deficit disorder, and she made it her mission to hold the school district at fault for not addressing this while getting treatment for her son at SABHS.

After receiving treatment herself from the facility after a breakdown from stress and work-related conditions, Walker encouraged parents to step in and be an advocate for themselves and their children.

“Accept the mental disability that’s going on,” she said.

According to Dianne Skaggs, Mental Health Council of Arkansas’s executive director, there are 12 community help centers and two specialty centers, with the southeast Arkansas facility being one.

From a law enforcement perspective, 250 area police officers are trained in de-escalating situations involving mentally ill individuals in order to prevent unnecessary arrests. During this training, officers are taken on tours of hospitals, patients in day treatment programs, and are given talks with veterans in order to see these individuals in calm settings.

“We want to get people to a better disposition, and prevent jail,” said Skaggs, who dedicated 26 years of social work to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.

Skaggs announced that the Mental Health Council of Arkansas had begun taking steps to further their efforts.

Act 423 was finalized in 2017 and will establish three regional Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Centers with 16 beds each. When people need mental health treatment and are causing trouble, the police can take them to a center rather than to jail, where they will not get any treatment at all.

The Mental Health Council of Arkansas also filed an opposition to the Arkansas Medicaid Patient Outcome Reform Act of 2016. The original proposal called for state general funding to community mental health centers to be cut by $7 million, which the council believed would have devastating effects on local mental health centers and the individuals who rely on their resources.

After closing remarks from Lancelin, guests were led into the courtyard for a balloon release honoring mental health awareness and the continuous efforts of SABHS.