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By Maura Kelley

As director of a community-based program providing supportive services for people with mental health disabilities like myself, I had mixed reactions to the May 19 article, “Today’s mental health squad: The police,” by Matthew Spina.

It is no surprise to those of us dealing with psychiatric disabilities that the police have become the front line of the several systems for treatment, recovery and, way too often, incarceration. We believe that this has happened because of the reduction of funding for programs that have been effective in reducing the stigma of mental illness and providing appropriate community supports.

There exist many options for addressing mental illness that can improve the quality of life, but they are never presented to people and their families. Mental Health Peer Connection, an organization of people dealing with and recovered from mental illness, has seen this pattern again and again.

We are people who have been institutionalized in hospitals, jails and prisons and are now living, working, paying taxes, raising families and participating in our communities.

Effective community supports are the solution. People with mental illness can be and are rehabilitated into our society. Mental Health Peer Connection is a strong example. Peer support and guidance for others trying to find the path to recovery has a proven record.

Forty percent of the more than 2,000 people with serious mental illness who sought help from us last year improved their mental and physical health, and their financial and housing situation. We provided peer support, hope, mentoring, advocacy and experience to the homeless, the hungry and those being released from hospitals, jails and prisons.

People sought us out because we have been there. We provide education to police and parole departments on how to address those with mental illness. We are in the Buffalo Mental Health Court, and in the state and local psychiatric institutions.

We prevented 410 people from being institutionalized or re-institutionalized last year.

If our brothers and sisters stay out of the institution for only one year, taxpayers save more than $50 million.

As peers, we are role models, have lived experiences and offer hope to those with mental illness, families, police and clinical treatment that recovery from mental illness can and does lead to normal, productive lives.

We want to be part of the solution of doing away with the “police mental health squads.” You cannot solve this problem by not including us in the dialogue.

We need all the voices at the table, especially the voices of those who have been there.

Maura Kelley is director of Mental Health Peer Connection.