Black, brown families struggle to obtain access to mental health services as funds evaporate

Created Equal

Mom Sheila Sutton is enmeshed in the world of mental health services and wellness by choice, and out of necessity.

It’s the kind of time consuming and emotionally draining work that is required when the patient in question is your own son.

“His diagnosis of bipolar with schizoaffective disorder took eight years to diagnose. As far as my son, who’s 46 now, has been through the system, through it, under it, over it. And it hasn’t been easy, and the struggle is still there,” the mom said.

In recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, PIX11 took a closer look at how many families – specifically families of color – struggle to obtain access to adequate mental health services for their loved ones as funding sources continue to evaporate, year after year.

Recent data tells the story.

According to The Coalition for the Homeless, Black and Latino New Yorkers – combined – represent a staggering 89 percent of the city’s homeless shelter population (58% Black + 31% Latino).

Separately, studies show a large majority of New York City’s street homeless population struggle with mental illness.

“We have twice a month, supports groups. And the stories that they tell are the same thing, over and over and over. Different people, different loved ones, but the same story, again, and again,” Sutton said. “The lack of care, the lack of follow up, the lack of appointments. My son, 15 minutes in front of a psychiatrist asking those perfunctory questions: how you doing, how you eating? How you sleeping? Here’s your prescription. It’s crazy.”

Sutton is registered nurse and member of the New York branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, a nonprofit which bills itself as the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.

Within these support groups, there are all too familiar stories of state and local governments reducing the number of available psychiatric beds and other acute services.

The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated the crisis, putting on full display a growing number of homeless individuals in our region suffering from mental health issues.

So even as we creep out of the paralyzing grip of the pandemic, a recent study by The Coalition of Behavioral Health concludes that “behavioral Health agencies are starting 2021 seriously weakened by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with reserve funds depleted and many in their workforce traumatized.”

Dhanu Sannesy, who sits on the board of directors for the New York State branch of NAMI, said local mental health agencies and health care facilities – including hospitals – are simply falling behind.

“It has become a revolving door because of the lack of funding, also the lack of psychiatric beds, there is no stabilization center,” Sannesy said. “So, long waiting periods in emergency rooms. It’s very difficult to find a psychiatrist.”

What’s the solution?

In a perfect world: funding increases. In the real world, it’s another story.

David Woodlock is the CEO of the New York City based nonprofit Institute for Community Living, or ICL, which houses some 2,300 people, many suffering from mental health issues, on a daily basis.

Woodlock blames funding cuts to one of the most basic – and most important services — for those suffering from mental health issues: supportive housing.

“It’s been more like a death by a thousand cuts. Rents, year after year, as everybody knows, in New York City, went up, year after year, and yet the funding that we got that helps provide safe, attractive homes for people – never went up,” Woodlock said.

The end result is that the mentally ill often get lumped into the same bucket of care – regardless of their actual circumstances – or need, as Sheila Sutton says she’s discovered all too often.

“What is it when my son is discharged to a shelter, where there’s rampant crime, and no kind of care for his illness. It’s just not fair,” she said. “I don’t know where the system broke down. It’s so many points, and entry ways and exits that this care has broken down. It’s just unfathomable.”

Her son, now 46, was initially diagnosed during his freshman year in college: that gives you an idea of the long journey – decades – that the Sutton family has endured, trying to find adequate mental health services. Families affected by mental illness have learned to rely on one another to often get the help they need.

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