Crossroads mental health care dwindles while patient numbers rise, consumers say

JR Ortega By JR Ortega

May 24, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
Updated May 27, 2012 at 12:27 a.m.

Lisa B. Stryk has been looking for a cure all her life.

When it's not her clinical depression, it's anxiety; when it's not her anxiety, it's her bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is the life of someone living with mental illness, and since 1949, the U.S. has delegated May as a month to recognize and champion the justices and injustices of these illnesses.

Yet, communities such as Victoria have not come a long way, she said. The high mental health stigma and limited funding and resources, such as the closure of the area's only in-patient psychiatric unit, give the feeling of backpedaling.

Stryk feels the battle isn't with her own mental stability, but rather the stability of a community and nation.

Out with the old

"It's gotten worse," Stryk said about quality of care while sitting at the table of one of her favorite eateries, Hungry's-Thirsty's. "I really think people don't understand mental health ... you've got to be careful who you tell about your mental illness."

Stryk, 53, was born and raised in Victoria. She has seen Gulf Bend Center grow and switch locations three times.

She first went to Gulf Bend in 1976, when a relationship had gone sour. Then years later, at Gulf Bend's other location, for an abusive marriage.

Most recently, Stryk checked into Bayview Behavioral Hospital in Corpus Christi - an experience that made her feel safe and controlled.

The problem: Stryk wishes a hospital, like the ones in surrounding metropolitan cities, existed in Victoria.

In April 2010, Victoria's only in-patient unit, One South at Citizens Medical Center, shut down after three psychiatrists requested a leave of absence.

This hole in emergency services is what many, such as Stryk, feel has left a hole in the mental health community.

Stryk's one downside was traveling out of town; it put stress on her and her family. Plus, Stryk feels an inpatient unit is needed because Victoria is the medical hub for several surrounding counties.

But even bigger than this is the stigma she has felt growing up.

"I've lived with it (stigma and mental illness) all my life," she said. "The stigma is very much alive."

Sarah Beaver, of Port Lavaca, is in the National Alliance on Mental Illness support group with Stryk, who leads the Tuesday evening support group as a facilitator.

Unlike Stryk, Beaver used One South and found it to be very helpful, especially because she would be close to her husband and kids.

"I don't know anyone who wants to be in the hospital," she said. "You still don't want to be there, but at least you have somewhere to go."

Beaver used the facility several times and said a mental health emergency is comparable to having a physical ailment.

Beaver, too, has had to travel out-of-town for emergency care.

"It says something about Victoria," she said. "It speaks that we don't have a unit, so the area doesn't think of it as a priority."

Don Polzin, Gulf Bend Center's executive director, said even with the loss of One South and limited funding, the push for mental health advocacy is shaping up quite well.

In with the new

Mental health is a big priority for this region, despite what some consumers may say, Polzin said.

"I'm optimistic that things are going to improve, we're beginning to see that," Polzin said, before outlining some of how mental health is transforming for the better - slowly but surely.

When One South closed in 2010, Polzin saw it as the chance for the community to wake up and understand that not all the resources needed in the community are available.

He used the unit's closure as a chance to strengthen ties with the Victoria County Sheriff's Office in its effort to have higher jail diversion, moving those mentally ill to units rather than incarceration.

"When we lose something, it's then that we recognize we took it for granted," he said. "It's through those things that we become stronger. We realize what we need and the value of it and realize where we need to make our investments."

So how is mental health changing in the Crossroads, despite a tough 82nd Legislature dealing with a several billion-dollar deficit?

Easy, said Polzin, who continues talking with state representatives about mental health's importance in the community. He says they realize the importance.

He felt this was evident when mental health resources and entities, like Gulf Bend, didn't take as big a hit as feared, he said.

This past year, the center helped open a Basic Center, a housing used for homeless or runaway youth dealing with mental issues such as depression.

Polzin sees this as just one of many changes to come in the near future. Ultimately, he would love to see sort of stabilization emergent or urgent care center through Gulf Bend.

"It's pretty exciting times," he said.

One thing he also sees happening is a closing gap on mental health and primary healthcare. Rather than being separate entities, he sees them going hand-in-hand, because mental health effects primary healthcare and vice versa.

Something Polzin is looking forward to is the 1115 waiver, which is a federal initiative and a medicaid waiver, that proposes re-evaluating primary and mental health.

Monies from a federal initiative like this could help the Crossroads add to existing resources and fund completely new programs for mental illness. Of course, Polzin worries receiving federal funding could mean the state would reduce funding, but Polzin hopes this won't happen.

Though this waiver is still being planned, it's another exciting potential to look forward to.

But one thing that has stayed consistent: the stigma, which he said is getting better.

"It's like putting a label on somebody," he said. "It's come a distance, but we've still got a long ways to go. It's not organizations that are going to make that change. It's going to come down to individuals, family members and communities."

And it's through the community that Stryk and several others are trying to fight back.

Championing for the community

Stryk turns a tiny hourglass sand timer inside a cramped room at the St. Francis Episcopal Church.

It's 6 p.m. Tuesday, the day the National Alliance on Mental Illness Victoria support group meets.

The group is a small one, but has been a major help for all those involved.

"This is like family," Stryk said. "We've become as close as a family. We call each other outside of the group."

The group does not offer advice or diagnoses, as they are not certified, but they listen - and that's the idea. Each person introduces anything on their mind as soon as the sand begins to trickle down.

Anything and everything is on the table, from work, to personal life, and, of course, dealing with their mental illnesses.

Patsy Weppler, president of the alliance, feels education is an important part of solving the stigma.

"God intended me to learn about mental illness for a reason," Weppler said.

Weppler has opened the door to help anyone who needs help, and she would love to see the community open their arms this way as well.

Polzin said this is the right mentality.

"People are walking among people managing their mental illness and they do not know it," he said.



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