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Out of Darkness

Good mental health makes "cents" for communities

On many levels, mental health is everyone’s business. Investing in better mental health reduces the risks of suicide, social exclusion and public violence. But it also generates savings in other sectors, particularly

the economy. Poor mental health

ranks as one of the costliest forms

of sickness for U.S. workers – and employers – according to research. Serious Mental Illness Advisor, an initiative administered by the American Psychiatric Association to provide access to resources for the most serious mental

health issues, reports that the economic impact of severe mental illness in the U.S. is nearly $300 billion a year.

Investing in our mental health is essential to returning to our full potential – not just pre-COVID status. We can no longer afford to see mental healthcare as a response to problems. Iberia Mental Health Initiative (IMHI) is a coalition of concerned citizens across several professional disciplines dedicated to identifying and addressing the mental health needs of Iberia’s

community. We spoke with Catherine and Dean Wattigny, IMHI founders and charter members, on the state of mental health in Iberia Parish, the challenges they face, and how they are getting their message out to those in need.

You identify and address the mental health needs of the community. What hurdles have you identified in the last few years? The lack of education in what is (considered) good mental health, what it’s composed of, and how to maintain good mental health. People also have a lack of understanding of how to access care. On top of that, there are limited resources for providing care and constraints on insurance coverage to pay for mental healthcare. It’s a many-faceted issue.

What strides have you made in your efforts to

promote better mental health? Our goal

is to help people stabilize their lives,

lessen the stressors and learn about

their condition to avoid needing quick

attention in a crisis situation. We’re also educating the public to give them the

knowledge and the tools to advocate for themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’re training primary care physicians to diagnose mental health disorders and collaborate with mental health professionals. (For example) we have a pediatrician who works closely with us.

Before COVID we offered various educational programs, free to the public, that brought mental health experts

to speak. We held a monthly support group for those dealing with family members with mental illness, facilitated by a licensed mental health professional. We promoted mental health through social media. And each May the city

and parish councils would approve resolutions for Mental Health Month.

Last May the Iberia Mental Health Initiative worked with Heart for Iberia coordinating a 5K run/walk and a 1-mile fun run/walk called Bayou Side to bring awareness of mental health. This was the first race in our area to shine a light on the topic and turned out to be the largest race held in Iberia Parish. Over 350 registrants turned out in recognition of friends or loved ones who lost their lives to mental illness. We’ll be holding it again this May.

So, what has been COVID’s impact on mental health? No doubt there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression because of the pandemic and the side effects from it: loss of jobs, children quarantined at home and not being with their friends. There’s a trickle effect.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 47 percent of adults

in Louisiana reported anxiety or depression earlier this year. But fear of being stigmatized keeps many from reaching out to get help.

However, if COVID did anything beneficial, it decreased the stigma of mental illness. It gave an open door for people to talk about what they were experiencing and their struggles. That’s what we aim to do with our initiative.

Given the limitations during COVID, what

were you able to do to reach out to people struggling? The use of telehealth and teletherapy grew out of the pandemic, making a more accessible way to acquire mental health assistance.

Also during the pandemic, we posted 10 videos on Facebook and our website produced by clinical psychologist Dr. Annie Spell, addressing the impacts

of the pandemic on children and how to talk to them about what they were experiencing. She also spoke to parents and teachers about maintaining their own good health.

What’s a scenario you’ve seen where investing in mental health would save money? Patient transportation. There are better ways to handle the costs associated with patients transported by a sheriff to a facility

that will take them, which is often a long distance. Parish government has

to pay for that transport. It’s a burden

to the hospital districts and there are more cost-efficient ways to deal with this issue. Baton Rouge, for instance, passed a tax and established public mental health facilities to stabilize patients so that they wouldn’t have to be transported long distances.

What are the options for someone concerned about paying for mental health treatment? The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act is a federal law that prevents insurance companies that provide mental health or substance

use disorder benefits from imposing greater limitations on those benefits than on medical/surgical benefits. If someone doesn’t have private insurance or Medicaid, the cost is anywhere from $65 to $250 per hour. The number of providers accepting Medicaid are few and far between. New Iberia Mental Health and Iberia Comprehensive Community Health Center accept Medicaid, but the appointment list

may be lengthy. If a patient is not on Medicaid, these organizations apply a sliding scale fee according to income.

What’s an upcoming priority in the IMHI initiative? We plan to discuss ways to aid teachers and students to recognize and address mental health in conjunction with Heart for Iberia.

If you’d like to know more about the IMHI’s initiatives, access online resources, or learn how you can help, visit the organization online at IberiaMentalHealthInitiative.org.