By Maura Kelley
The case of Gregory Seifert is a sad story. His imprisonment for an irrational attack on power poles exemplifies how the police have become the stop-gap in the treatment of mental illness.
It was good that the recent front-page Buffalo News article shed light on this wrong-minded treatment of those battling serious mental illness. Not so good, however, was the message that psychiatric centers are the proper community support and that the closing of such institutions has led to this incarcerating placement.
Unfortunately, those very same institutions perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. Or, shall we say, the prejudice against it because those afflicted feel the preconceived labeling by many, detrimentally similar to that of racial or ethnic prejudice.
These are places people with mental illness fear and try to avoid in order not to be branded for life with the scarlet M. Productive human good resulting from such institutional stays is minimal. And crisis services are there for only short-term, desperate measures.
What has been working toward a more productive turnaround and an increase in quality of life are alternative community supports such as Mental Health Peer Connection. Peers as in people who have been there, have experienced mental illness and have now attained the ability to help people over the hump of life and its seemingly insurmountable stress.
People to people, peer to peer, not just a reliance on medication or therapy, but caring interaction on how to live as a responsible citizen with a disability. Helping people with mental illness find homes, get jobs, pay taxes and improve their lives with the right type of support groups, wellness coaches, benefits advisers and employment assistance.
Of the nearly 400 served at the Peer Connection over the past year, 46 percent have realized a measurable quality-of-life improvement, and nearly a third have successfully found employment.
A recent survey done by the agency found that 46 percent of people with disabilities have been emotionally hurt by the fact that they have a disability, and that nearly 30 percent have been physically hurt due to their disability.
Psychiatric centers are not community supports, as a follow-up News editorial suggested. This is what is needed: people who have been there, helping integrate people with mental illness into the community, to live, work and play as independently as their neighbors.
Deinstitutionalizing, whether a psychiatric center or – worst-case scenario – a prison, is what decreases the stigma and prejudice of mental illness with the proper community supports.
The results are proven. The alternative is working.
Maura Kelley is director of Mental Health Peer Connection and co-president of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.