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Nov 24, 2014 2:15 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Group Assesses East End's Mental Health Resources

Nov 24, 2014 2:34 PM

One in four people in the United States struggle with mental health issues annually—which means that in Amagansett, with a population of about 21,500, at least 5,000 people experience mental health issues.

That sobering statistic came from Ken Miller, former director of clinical services and service coordination for East End Disability Associates in Riverhead, who was part of a forum held last week to address needed mental health services for those living on the East End of Long Island.

East End Disabilities Group, a non-profit advocacy group, held the forum on Wednesday, November 19, at St. Michael’s senior housing complex in East Hampton. The gathering focused on ways to address holes in the health care system and in the community to better serve those who struggle with mental illness.

The State Senate recently earmarked $160,000 to bring about more accessible mental health services, specifically for the South Fork. Another $250,000 was raised by local towns, school districts and by Suffolk County. The state money will go to local agencies to assist with mental health programs for the East End, and the other money will go to the South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative, which assists locals with mental health and psychological problems,

Mr. Miller said that many people have difficulty finding mental health providers who accept Medicaid and Medicare. He also pointed out the obtaining health insurance can be difficult due to a language barrier that affects many. He added that people who struggle with mental illness also have trouble with medication management, because there is no coordination between psychiatrists and medical doctors.

The East End Disabilities Group is looking for ways to improve those issues by pushing for tele-psychiatry, computer video conferencing between patient and psychiatrist. This allows people in remote areas to have access to mental health services via the internet. The group also seeks to improve coordinated care and transportation for those with mental health needs.

But several members of the community who attended the forum said that more needs to be done.

Pamela Willoughby, who lost her fiance to a heart attack last month, said there isn’t any kind of crisis center you can call to talk to someone. “Family Service League couldn’t talk to me because they were so busy, so I had to calm my mind and do it myself,” she said. “I was really in crisis, and there was nobody to call and nothing to do.”

She said it is necessary to have a place to go where there are social workers to help people through a crisis, even if it just means having someone to talk to.

Another woman said she was diagnosed with cancer again and needed counseling, but when she found Fighting Chance, a counseling center for cancer patients in Sag Harbor, they too were very overwhelmed.

Ellen Tollefsen, a member of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which aims to educate the community on mental illness, training and medications, suggested there be a center created for respite or a place “for an individuals who are feeling themselves unraveling.”

“They could be talked through what they’re experiencing and get back on track,” Mr. Tollefsen said. “The staff could tell them about resources they weren’t aware of and get them to realize they should be taking their medication.”

Ms. Tollefsen advocated dealing with mental illness in a preemptive way, adding that people often don’t understand what they’re experiencing or how to deal with it. “When the view is through a mind that is sick, you don’t know what is happening to yourself,” she said. “You don’t know what the treatments are.”

Pedro Enrique Rivera, who has bipolar disorder, said he tried to find help on the East End and couldn’t.

“We need to tell local therapists not to be so selfish,” Mr. Rivera said. “When they treated me, they knew they couldn’t help but never gave me information to go see somebody else that could help me. Some places are overwhelmed, so when I tried to get help, I’d be waiting for three to four months. I couldn’t wait that long.”

Mr. Rivera was forced to go to Stony Brook University Medical Center for help. He said they referred him to a doctor at Yale University, where he received “amazing quality” service. “It’s very important to get high-quality services for mental illness to the East End,” he said.

Some local doctors have tried to bring that kind of help to people in need, like Dr. Gail Schonfeld, a pediatrician in East Hampton. Recently, she had psychiatrists work at her practice in order to give patients more well-rounded care. The pilot project, she said, was funded by Family Service League, but the League had to cut back, and the therapists had to leave her office. Now, she is looking for a more sustainable and stable source of funding.

Dr. Schonfeld and others in attendance at the mental health forum said that a lot of doctors do not accept Medicaid or Medicare because the fees are too high, since Medicaid, for example, only pays $12 per patient per month, no matter how many times they seek help.

The Reverend Dr. Katrina Foster said many people come to her seeking advice on mental health services. “The clergy have a lot of people who come speak with us who are ashamed to go to a therapist and think they can pray away whatever is happening in their minds,” Rev. Foster said. “Three young people under 20 have sought me out in the last week … I say, ‘I will pray for and listen to you’—but I am not a therapist. I am not equipped to do this work that needs to be done.”

She said people are told to keep their mental issues a secret and that there is shame connected to being mentally ill.

“We are only as sick as our secrets,” she said. “The reality is, we can do more and do better.”

The East End Disabilities Group is trying to gather more information on the community’s needs and can be reached at eedgorg@aol.com or (631) 267-7565.

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