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Mental services: a model

By Tom Davis

When Robert Correll's son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he promised to fight to find treatment for him.

The problem was, he didn't know where to go to learn about the illness.

"It was scary," said Correll,a mental health advocate in Connecticut. "As a parent, you don't know exactly what's going on."

Correll and other mental health advocates demanded change. They got it. Not only are they now better informed, they got a better system.

In the first state-by-state analysis of the nation's mental health care system in more than 15 years, the National Alliance on MentalI llness gave Connecticut, as well as Maine, Wisconsin and South Carolina, a B, its highest grade in the survey.

Though it can do better -- as the report stated -- NAMI credited Connecticut for its leadership and for providing a respectable level of funding for mental health initiatives.

Those initiatives included: establishing a private-public partnership, which provides more housing for people with mental illness; as signing mental health specialists in arraignment courts; and developing a training program for mental health professionals with Yale University.

"Connecticut is recognized nationally for explicit promotion of a recovery model of care which focuses on individual strengths and enhancement of the ability tofunction," according to the NAMI report.

The state also got credit for doing exactly what Correll wanted: providing a mental health care system that is accessible and has a vision.

"It still needs some work, but it's much better than it used to be," he said.

New Jersey received a C. Though the grade was better than the majority of states, which received D's, it indicated the state's mental health agencies still have flaws, said Sylvia Axelrod, executive director of NAMI New Jersey.

"We're ahead of the other states, but we've got some work to do," Axelrod said.

The report commended New Jersey for several recent initiatives, such as the development of a housing trust fund. But it also identified "urgent needs," including improving conditions in state hospitals and developing community services.

The report was based on surveys of consumers, advocates and professionals, NAMI said. The group navigated Web sites and researched telephone systems in each state and rated their accessibility.

Connecticut officials said they made accessibility a priority in recent years. The state has established a "local mental health authority" system that provides more direct, community-based care to consumers. The system also provides case management and vocational services and support for people who have been incarcerated.

"I think there has been good leadership and vision from all of our stakeholders, including the consumers and others who advo-cated for more funding," said Jim

Siemianowski, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Mental health has become a funding priority, too.

Connecticut had the fifth-highest per-capita mental health spending in the nation and was 15th in total funding, officials said.

It ranked 47th in the number of suicides.

"The National Alliance on Mental Illness does not pull punches when it looks at how states are doing in the care for people with mental illness," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said in a statement. "That makes the top national rating for Connecticut all the more significant."

Just a decade ago, various reports criticized Connecticut for its insufficient inpatient and outpatient mental health services -- particularly those for people who have been incarcerated.

Now Correll credits advocates --such as himself -- for lobbying, pushing and shaming legislators into changing the system.

"My wife and I made a major decision -- to work as hard as we could to find out about mental illness here in the state, and to make it better," Correll said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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