The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 21, 2013

Suffering in the Shadows: Resources exist for those who need help

By Jean Cole

— Jim Hickman of Huntsville was a college student talking to a girl after class one day when he realized something was awry. He felt like he knew what the girl was going to say even before she said it, as if he had suddenly developed extra-sensory perception.

In the days that followed, Jim began to hear conversations in his head. One involved his grandmother and a college professor who were vampires trying to use him as a medium to form a union, he said.

His world began to slowly unravel. More psychotic episodes and, eventually, hospitalization, followed.  Jim, whose dream was to become a lawyer and change the world, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 21.

“Even though my mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, she died when I was 7, I really hadn’t given mental illness much thought,” Jim said.

Eventually, Jim found help at the Mental Health Center of Madison, which he credits with saving his life.

With the help of medication, therapy and housing assistance, Jim got control of his illness, graduated from college and went on to become a therapist — first for the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama (MHC), which serves Limestone County, then for the Mental Health Center of Madison. He even wrote a book about his ordeal titled “The Mindful Son: A Beacon of Hope through the Storm of Mental Illness.”

Access to help limited

Jim is one of the thousands of people in Alabama who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It is estimated that one in five people suffer from a major mental health issue at some point in their lives, according to the MHC. Illnesses range from panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

There are a number of mental health resources, listed below, that are available to Limestone County residents, including those on Medicaid or Medicare. However, it is estimated that nationwide six out of 10 Americans living with mental illness have no access to mental health care, mainly because they are under age 65 or have no children and therefore do not qualify for Medicaid, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Alabama’s recent decision to decline $14 million in federal Medicaid-expansion dollars would have, in part, covered 78,691 uninsured adults with mental illness, NAMI says.

In Alabama, increasing health care and prescription drug costs as well as a growing population, particularly in North Alabama, have strained resources for mental health care, as they have in other states. Here is a list of places Limestone County residents can find mental health assistance:

Crisis Services

Crisis Services of North Alabama helps both individuals and families in crisis, said Christa Crabtree of the CSNA in Athens.

“A crisis can be a major life issue like domestic violence or an everyday event like overdue bills,” she said. “We know that an overload of problems and stress-creating situations can develop to a point where the person is vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or physical illness. Exposure to traumatic events such as domestic violence or sexual assault may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Coping with PTSD without support may result in a cycle of dysfunctional coping skills or self-destructive behaviors.  Our goal is to provide crisis intervention services to interrupt this downward spiral.”

Crisis intervention may take the form of counseling, either on HELPline — a 24-hour crisis line at 256-716-1000 — or by face-to-face consultation with a CSNA victim advocate or therapist, Crabtree said.

“An important focus for CSNA is to respond to those whose distress has led them to the brink of suicide,” she said.

Their crisis line is staffed 24 hours a day and is part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. 

All CSNA services are free.

Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama

MHCNCA is a public, nonprofit mental health organization that has provided psychiatric and mental health services to people in Limestone, Morgan and Lawrence counties since 1967. Services include psychiatric assessments, medication prescription and monitoring, counseling for adults, children and families; substance-abuse treatment, case management services; and employee assistance programs. They offer housing and transportation for those with mental illnesses — specifically for the seriously mentally ill who cannot hold down jobs and therefore do not have vehicles or homes.

Bill Giguere, MCH development officer, said the organization also provides transitional and permanent housing for people with mental illnesses, something he believes will be increased as the state downsizes mental health care provided at state hospitals.

Currently, transitional group homes are available in Athens, 10 beds with plans to add more; Decatur, 14 beds; Moulton, 10 beds; and 20 other beds at the community residential campus. Trained staff members are always on duty at the transitional homes and on call at the residential programs, Gigue said.

In addition, MHC also provides permanent housing at 10 apartments spread across Limestone and Morgan counties, and at The Village Inc. in Decatur.

Decatur Morgan Hospital West Campus

DMH West Campus is a 64-bed, inpatient, psychiatric facility in Decatur with separate units for adolescents ages 12-18; adults over age 18; and geriatrics, 60 years and older. It is designed for people dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, anger and aggression, psychoses, obsessive-compulsive disorder, adjustment disorder and grief. Its geriatric unit helps people dealing with mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dementia with disturbance in mood or behavior and psychotic disorder. The facility accepts Medicare, Medicaid and most group health insurance programs. Individuals can receive free assessment and referral services by calling 800-937-3873 or any of the satellite offices.