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Advocates Seek Solution For State's Mentally Ill

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CARY, N.C. — At the Mission House for Women in Cary, Karen Broadwell's mission is to work past her history of drugs, depression and bipolar disorder.

"It's controlled enough where I can handle it with the medication," Broadwell said.

But the transitional housing center can't handle the influx of the mentally ill.

In the last year, nearly 40 women have come through Mission House from a mental health facility or hospital.

"We're not financially equipped to house them. We're not staffed to house them," said Mission House representative Gloria Sawyer.

State mental health officials say hospitals such as Dorothea Dix can't keep housing patients either, once they're no longer a danger to themselves or others.

"If a person is in our hospital, stabilized, and they wish to leave, we have no ability to keep them in the facility beyond their desires," said Leza Wainwright, with the North Carolina Division of Mental Health.

If home's not an option, shelters such as the Helen Wright Center in Raleigh may get a call to take in a patient.

"(The) only thing we ask (is) that they be able to do is self-medicate and hopefully we just try to keep them on task," said Sam McLean, housing director of the Helen Wright Center.

In 2000, the state's four psychiatric hospitals treated and sent more than 750 patients to a homeless shelter. Last year, that number increased to nearly 1,250.

But the mentally ill who come through the doors of homeless shelters aren't just coming from the state's psychiatric hospitals.

They may come from the prison system or off the streets, making up nearly 40 percent of the people staying at shelters.

"We're not the community's answer to mental health discharges," McLean said.

State officials and mental health advocates agree that there needs to be more affordable housing with outpatient treatment programs.

"Unfortunately, (homeless shelters) don't provide the kind of long-term stable environment that we think is necessary for people coming out of a hospital," said Benjamin Staples, with the National Alliance of Mental Health.

Advocates would also like to see communities build crisis centers to keep people from needing to go to a state psychiatric hospital.

"At least in that environment, there is some degree of supervision and oversight," Wainwright said.

For Broadwell, she's set her sight on getting back on track.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said.

Representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Wake County will talk about how mental health reform impacts the public. The forum, which is open to the public, begins at 7 p.m. Monday at Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh.


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