On Thursday evening mental illness advocates gathered at the Disability Rights Center on St. Thomas to hear from a nationally recognized mental health expert that’s advising the territory on how to improve a largely lacking system.
Chacku Mathai, a 30-year veteran in the field and director of one of five STAR Centers that operates under the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, spoke to the group to give guidance on how the territory can start implementing its Five Year Mental Health Strategic Plan, 2014-2019.
To improve mental health care services, SAMHSA is providing the territory with a five-year grant that will serve to kick start action by providing what Mathai calls “behind the scenes” training and support. Mathai’s first visit to the territory was in April, during which time he met with a number of government and private sector leaders.
Of the nine states and territories Mathai’s STAR Center oversees, the organization had to choose three places to prioritize. He explained his center chose the Virgin Islands since it didn’t have a program here already.
“The criteria was the need for some real opportunity that you have with the strategic plan, but the need to really help you accelerate that community voice to initiate this effort and make it happen,” Mathai told the attendees.
The 10 meeting attendees, most of which were affiliated with the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, came prepared with questions for Mathai.
According to Archie Jennings, the managing attorney for the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, the strategic plan recommends that mental health services be run as a public-private partnership, so the government is strongly encouraged to collaborate with groups like NAMI for direction.
Among the attendees’ questions were how to get the support of the community in a step-by-step, concrete way, as well as how to reduce the stigma of mental illness throughout the territory. There were concerns over making jobs available to the mentally ill as well since they suffer a staggeringly high unemployment rate.
The attendees unanimously agreed that mental health must be talked about from the perspective of mental wellness instead as mental illness, since the later can reinforce negative stereotypes.
Mathai explained that celebrating recovery is an important aspect of reducing the stigma, since wellness is seen positively.
Margaret Brandy, a family education teacher at NAMI, said people need to be able to say they have a mental illness and still feel safe.
Funding was also a leading concern, since the attendees would like to open meeting places for mental health support and drop-in centers for treatment.
Mathai walked the group through the SAMHSA grant site to show what type of funding is available and what’s been awarded to the other local organizations. He said he would alert health care providers and advocates when new funding becomes available.
Elizabeth Pichardo, a recent psychology graduate from the University of the Virgin Islands and longtime advocate for mental health services, stressed the need for what she called “culturally competent” psychologists. She explained that most of the territory’s psychologists aren’t from the Virgin Islands and don’t understand how big of a role religion plays in many people’s lives.
Every first Monday of the month NAMI meets at the Roy Lester Schneider Hospital in the second floor conference at 6 p.m. as a part of its Family Support and Education Group Program. Since last Monday was a holiday, the group will meet this coming Monday to discuss how to deal with emotions.
On July 14 from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m., NAMI will host a flea market sale a the Four Winds Plaza near the walkway to the V.I. Water and Power Authority on St. Thomas. The funds will go to the organization’s program to educate the community about mental health.