Washington County levy would fund mental health efforts

Photo by Janelle Patterson
Brett Nicholas, 57, of Marietta, discusses the good and bad days he has living with mental illness in Jeremiah’s Coffee House.

Photo by Janelle Patterson Brett Nicholas, 57, of Marietta, discusses the good and bad days he has living with mental illness in Jeremiah’s Coffee House.

MARIETTA — He couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks and didn’t even know he was ill at the time.

“I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Brett Nicholas, 57, of Marietta, said on a recent morning while sipping a double macchiato. “A lot of times the people you’re trying to explain this to don’t want to hear it.”

Nicholas lives with bipolar disorder. He and his wife are just two of the approximately 5.7 million adult Americans who live with the mental illness.

“For the people who say to just get over it, to just get out of bed and stop being lazy I say try putting 300 pounds on your chest and just get out of bed, because that’s what it feels like,” he explained.

Nicholas is an advocate of one issue that all Washington County residents will see on the Nov. 7 ballot this year: the tax levy to support prevention, treatment and recovery programs for children, adolescents and adults at risk for mental illness and substance use disorders.

It’s an issue that has been on the ballot four times, the first in 1998 and the most recent in 2011, but each time it failed, with voters citing tight household budgets as one reason for voting no.

But the recent outcry concerning the opioid epidemic, along with the suicides and overdose deaths both in adults and high school teens in the county in the last two years, may lead to a different outcome this year, some community members are hoping.

The new levy proposal would cost $17.50 per year for the owner of a home valued at $100,000 for the next five years. It would nearly double the Washington County Behavioral Health Board’s operating budget, which provides not only services to those at risk or in need of treatment, but also support for local professionals and families to be more engaged in the health of the community.

Currently the board is funded through federal and state subsidies, grants and entitlements as well as fees and donations but an increase in need for treatment services due to the heroin epidemic and cutbacks on the state level have forced a reduction in services able to be offered.

The board funds additional programs like crisis intervention training to de-escalate dangerous situations and mental health first aid classes to empower local residents and individuals in educational, ministerial and familial roles with identifying warning signs and helping children and adults get help.

“To me it’s an investment in the safety of my community,” said Jim Raney, co-chair of the levy’s campaign. “Just in the last several weeks the police have arrested several people across the alley from me for drug felonies and I feel that I no longer live in a safe neighborhood.”

He said the additional revenue if the levy passes would go toward reviving programs that have seen cuts in the past few year, such as financial assistance for those needing treatment who do not qualify for Medicaid and cannot afford health insurance premiums.

“Additionally we have a new program partnering with all of the schools in Washington County that while currently funded by a grant and $35,000 in seed money from the board, would need to be continued after that grant runs out,” said Raney. “This is an evidence-based prevention program focused not only on not doing drugs but good coping skills and violence avoidance to equip the next generation with the tools to live mentally healthy lives.”

Raney cited the several drug cases and thefts related to drugs that are driven by a silent epidemic of mental illness in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“These individuals self-medicate, then the cycle begins as they steal or commit other crimes once addicted, then they end up in our court system and paid for by the public to incarcerate,” he explained. “When instead we could be getting them help, investing in them so that the return on investment is their contribution to society by working and raising healthy families instead of broken ones.”

Tim Kuehe is one example of how help, therapy and treatment can turn a person from drug abuse to community engagement.

“I’m a recovered addict and have gone from the extreme bottom, with no job and no future to now,” said the 36-year-old St. Marys resident who was taking a Mental Health First Aid class this week in Marietta through the board. “Now I’m recovered four years, and I got my bachelors and a 3.95 GPA for my masters in business.”

Kuehe works with troubled and at-risk youth in the valley now, guiding them into job training and helping 16-through-24-year-olds with building and maintaining a work history so that they don’t fall down the paths of drug abuse he did.

“I experienced molestation and abuse during adolescence,” he said. “I self-medicated and it took more than 10 years before I got help for what drove me to self-medicate and get that treatment that was ultimately was part of my recovery.”

Belpre High School Principal Dennis Eichinger also took the Mental Health First Aid class this week because he recognized that simply punishing bad behaviors in schools is not solving any problems.

“During the last seven years I’ve been principal I’ve seen a lot of behaviors that we have a difficult time identifying the cause of,” he explained. “Lots of anger and lashing out… we’re seeing the mental illness in both the kids and their parents and these kids don’t know how to react except in anger.”

On Thursday, Kuehe and Eichinger learned warning signs and action plans to identify warning signs within those children he now works with and how to guide them toward appropriate counseling and aid rather than continuing paths of self harm.

“I think if someone had identified these signs within me and my behaviors at 12, how much further I’d be now and how differently my life would look if I had gotten help then,” he said. “Finding hope is the problem, but also bridging the gap between those barriers of no work history, no social coping skills that is all encompassed within the mental health sector.”

Eichinger said he hopes the levy passes so that programs and counseling within the schools can expand and the stressors can be addressed earlier before children chose the path of illegal drugs or self harm.

“We need to have these issues recognized without judgment and these people need help to become better parents, employees and community members,” he said.

Raney said programs like the Mental Health First Aid class are part of the overall picture for the additional funds the board hopes to receive with a passage of the levy. The additional resources would also go to the Suicide Prevention Coalition, EVE Inc. (a local domestic violence shelter) and The Right Path for Washington County which focuses on engaging at-risk youth in preventative activities to help them steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

Levy funds would also be used to move more people into detox at a faster rate and would be used to help service providers hire additional therapists. Then the additional funds would be used to expand recovery programs and by creating: supportive independent living services and housing — including a women’s recovery house; peer mentoring which allows people who have advanced well into recovery to help others who are at earlier stages; job training and placement services which help people take a final step back into the community.

Nicholas said the spectrum of needs, treatment and management of mental health is so vast and individualized that it’s often dismissed as flaws of character instead of addressed on the most human level.

“I don’t know if there are words in the English language to adequately describe it,” he explained. “How do you describe the feelings you have without pinning them on an external reason yet still make them understand that mental illness has a physical component to it?”

He said he hopes those who look at the levy on the ballot in the coming weeks with early voting and on Election Day remember that mental illness is a lethal disease if left untreated.

“It’s every bit as deadly as cancer and the people that don’t have the resources to treat it are the ones barely holding on to minimum wage jobs. They’re your neighbors, or your family and it’s different for everyone,” he said. “These services are vitally needed and we’re not meeting the need. Have some compassion.”

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On the Ballot

* A five-year, county-wide 0.5-mill levy proposal.

* The levy would fund essential prevention, treatment and recovery programs for children, adolescents and adults at risk for mental illness and substance use disorders.

* For a home valued at $100,000, the annual cost for the levy would be $17.50 a year.

* If passed, the levy’s annual addition of $737,000 to the behavioral health funding in Washington County would be split the following ways:

* two-third used to provide new services.

* one-third to expand current services and to revive services cut as a result of diminishing state and federal funding.

* The levy would nearly double the current budget of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.

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About mental and behavioral health in Washington County:

* Of Ohio’s 88 counties, Washington is one of the 12 counties that does not have a mental health levy.

* Washington County has only one mental health provider for every1,490 residents.

* Washington County’s suicide rate of 13.67 per 100,000 population exceeded the overall Ohio rate of 12.43 per 100,000 population with an average of eight completed suicides per year in 2008-2014.

* There have been an average of seven completed suicides per year in 2011-2016.

* For the past 10 fiscal years between 300 and 700 county residents each year have been served for alcohol or other drug/chemical dependence.

* For the past 10 fiscal years between 2,000 and 3,000 county residents each year have been served for mental health.

* More information about this levy can be found on the campaign website: wcmhl.com.

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