Ohio needs a greater public focus on suicide prevention, National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio board members told The Courier on Tuesday.

One of the state board members is Eric McKee of Findlay, who lives with clinical depression that is treatment-resistant.

He recounted how, during a period years ago “when the medications were not working for me,” he experienced thoughts of suicide and thought that he was a burden to others. McKee is now doing better, but he has three dear friends “who have lost their struggle with suicide.”

He would like to see more public focus on the issue.

McKee said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that suicide has increased nationwide by 25 percent from 1999 to 2016. In Ohio, the rate increased 36 percent in that period.

“We don’t talk about suicide, but we need to talk about suicide,” he said. “We need to address that.”

McKee and Jessica Schmitt, executive director of NAMI of Wood County and also a NAMI Ohio board member, outlined NAMI Ohio’s other recommendations for Ohio as part of a statewide effort to meet with newspaper editorial boards.

Along with increasing public focus on suicide prevention, initiatives include: providing more hospital beds for those who need inpatient care; expanding crisis care; making more safe, affordable housing available for people with serious mental illness; and boosting early identification and intervention programs.

Schmitt, too, has a personal connection to the agency’s mission. She got involved with NAMI because of family members living with various mental health conditions.

She said eight of 10 children who have the signs and symptoms for a mental health diagnosis are not getting treatment.

“They’re not being identified,” she said, explaining the importance of teachers, coaches and those leading places like the YMCA, 4-H or church youth groups knowing how to recognize symptoms.

She said it’s important to teach children, too, so they know they can seek help for themselves or a friend.

Schmitt said when someone leaves the hospital after being treated for mental illness, it is often hard to find safe, affordable housing.

She said Wood County has limited options, but many rural counties have none. If a patient has a history of being “aggressive,” there are even fewer housing options, and living at home may not be best for the person or their family, she said.

McKee said Ohio is “incredibly underfunded” for mental health.

Medicaid expansion in Ohio helped, he said, but the state now has a combined Mental Health and Addiction Services Department, and much of that department’s funding is being used to address the opioid epidemic. He said this is important and needed. But, Schmitt said, they are “not creating new funds” but shifting money that had gone to mental health treatment to focus on addiction.

McKee believes both gubernatorial candidates understand the importance of the Medicaid expansion.

“I think the mental health community will be greatly served by either one of them,” he said.

He said Gov. John Kasich has been “a huge, huge advocate for us,” and Tracy Plouck, who recently stepped down as director of the Mental Health and Addiction Services Department, has also been a help.

But he said he’d like to see more legislators statewide convinced of the importance of this issue. He and Schmitt said they feel legislators representing northwest Ohio are listening.

Schmitt said in Wood County there is no inpatient psychiatric treatment, such as Orchard Hall at Blanchard Valley Hospital in Findlay. Patients generally go to hospitals in Lucas County.

In rural areas, there are typically fewer treatment options. So residents of rural northwest Ohio end up getting treatment in Lucas County, where there is always a shortage of beds, and which means a longer trip for family members to visit or participate in meetings.

McKee said there is also a shortage of psychiatrists, which could be addressed by incentives for medical students to go into psychiatry, perhaps loan forgiveness for those who work in a crisis center.

McKee stressed that the NAMI Ohio board has “the utmost respect” for those working in the health care system. They are “constantly understaffed” but still “doing incredible work.” But we need more of them, he said.

Ohio currently has about one-fifth of the number of psychiatric hospital beds that experts have recommended, and only one-third of those beds are available to those not in the criminal justice system, McKee said.

“They’re waiting sometimes for days,” he said.

Or a family member may call the police to protect a loved one, and the person then ends up in jail, “and that’s where they’re getting their mental health care.”

Insurance companies may only pay for a few days of psychiatric hospitalization, but it may take weeks before the person is stabilized on their medication, McKee said.

He and Schmitt mentioned the Adam-Amanda Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Athens, a 16-bed rehabilitation facility for people to stabilize under supervised care before re-entering the community.

The center’s namesakes are Adam Knapp, who had schizophrenia and was released from a hospital despite his parents’ pleas; and Amanda Baker, a mental health advocate who struggled with severe depression and anxiety, and was also released from a hospital early, after a few days.

Both died by suicide, Knapp at 30 and Baker at 26.

The center will have its grand opening Aug. 25, and NAMI Ohio hopes to create similar centers across the state.

McKee said he’d like to see the state make more money available for the care of people with mental illnesses.

“We need to change the way we talk about mental health. … The stigma has to go,” he said.

McKee said he is seeing some of the conversations shift. A friend who has experienced psychosis and was waiting to get in to see a psychiatrist posted on social media about how he was doing recently, and received overwhelming support from friends.

McKee said he is open about his own mental illness and when he tells loved ones when he is not doing well, it not only helps them support him, but lets them know that his mood isn’t because of anything they have done.

McKee said youth are more willing to talk about mental health issues and are “much more open.” And they do use social media to communicate in positive ways. Also, he said, medical science keeps coming up with new possible treatments.

“There’s a lot of hope, actually,” he said.

McKee noted that NAMI offers “Peer to Peer” classes for people living with mental illnesses, and “Family to Family” classes for their loved ones.

NAMI of Hancock County can be reached at 567-525-3435, ext. 176. NAMI of Wood County can be reached at 419-352-0626.

The Hancock County crisis line is 1-888-936-7116. Or, you can call 211 with a mental health question.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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Twitter: @swarthurs