ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Eastern Ohio has three basic needs when it comes to mental health care: Funding, getting people to the services they need and having professionals to provide those services.
That was how Belmont County Deputy Health Commissioner summed up the need for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown during a roundtable forum on the topic at Ohio University Eastern on Tuesday. Brown, D-Ohio, heard from several people working in the field, all of whom agreed that staffing, transportation and funding are lacking in the region.
Brown acknowledged that the nation has “under invested” in mental health care and added that the issue was “forgotten” during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while he said he did not want to politicize the issue, he noted that following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, many Republicans wanted to shift the focus toward mental health care and away from gun control. As a result, he said, he was “shocked” when GOP lawmakers were willing to come to the table and negotiate on recently passed legislation that he said will help to get more guns off America’s streets.
On Tuesday, though, he said he wanted to hear from local health care leaders such as Jeff Britton, CEO of Ohio Hills Health Services, and from people like a man named Ryan, a recipient of the mental health services that are available locally.
Britton and nurse practitioner Miles Jefferis began by telling Brown about OHHS’s multiple locations across four counties and the challenges they face, including getting clients to their appointments for both physical and mental health care.
One change Britton said he has noticed in recent years is the Department of Health and Human Resources’ expectation that clinics like his better integrate mental health into overall patient care.
Jefferis said he and OHHS provide primary care and medical care working in conjunction with staff physicians. As part of those services, they screen for anxiety and mental health issues, and they ask clients about guns in their homes.
Britton said OHHS serves nine counties in Ohio as well as three in West Virginia.
As Brown turned to Shannan Watson of Crossroads Counseling Services for more information, some cupcakes on a side table caught his eye. He paused the conversation long enough to help himself and to have them passed around the table for participants to enjoy. Getting back down to business, he heard from Watson that anxiety is a huge problem in the region, partly because those who suffer from it tend to “self medicate,” leading to drug addiction and alcoholism.
When Brown asked if these substance abuse issues lead to domestic violence, she agreed that they do. And she added that this has led to more adolescents using drugs or alcohol to cope.
“It’s all tied together, ” she said.
Ryan opened up about his own battles with addiction, depression and anxiety, noting that self medicating led him down the wrong path. He has since served time behind bars, undergone counseling and obtained employment, and is now living in “Sober House,” a transitional housing facility in Bellaire.
In answer to a question from Brown, Ryan said he has “many” friends who face the same issues he has fought against. He said he and others like him who have been through trauma feel “embarrassed” and “try to bury it,” and that is why he started drinking alcohol at age 12. He even tried moving away from the area to escape his problems before entering a rehabilitation program at Crossroads’ New Outlook halfway house.
“I am fortunate and blessed to have the support I have today,” Ryan said, noting that he wants to see others suffering from mental health and addiction issues succeed, and that it is important to forgive yourself for the mistakes you have made.
Jan Chambers, spokeswoman for OHHS who also seeks grants for the agency, told Brown that “access is huge” for residents of the region when it comes to all types of health care. She said while providers may only be available in certain communities, people who live here are older and poorer, and the area lacks public transportation. Add recent high gasoline prices to the mix, and she said people simply don’t come to their appointments.
“A lot of people can’t travel great distances,” Chambers said. “For people who work for minimum wage, how can you take a day off when you need mental health care?”
Kurt Turner works with an all-volunteer group that provides critical incident stress management support for first responders, teachers and others, but he said no grants are available to fund their work and that a fireman’s union in Columbus is taking over those services, even in the local area.Although many of the volunteers paid for their own training, he said many local departments no longer utilize the help they can provide.
David Rohall, dean of the OUE campus, said while his facility does not have on-site clinics, the staff sees “great demand” for mental health services among students.
Before counselor Andrea Dominick spoke of the need to raise public awareness of mental health issues and for a call to action to remove the sense of stigma associated with such conditions, she pointed out to Bown that Chambers had just learned of the birth of her first grandchild within the hour. Brown took time to view photos of little Ada Dorothy, whose family lives in Xenia, Ohio, and asked Chambers if she was going to visit the baby after the roundtable. When she responded that she wasn’t making an immediate trip, Brown quipped,”We can get you a ride.”
Brown urged all participants to reach out to his staff regarding their specific needs and suggestions. He added that while he wasn’t making any promises at the moment, he could potentially direct earmarked federal funds toward their efforts.