State says it’s meeting mental health timeline

Georgia is on track in delivering promised changes for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, a state official said Friday.

The state promised to revitalize community services as part of a landmark 2010 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over problems in Georgia’s mental health system.

Pamela Schuble, the settlement coordinator with the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said Georgia has met its first-year targets under the agreement. She spoke in Atlanta at the 16th annual Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum.

In the settlement, Georgia pledged to establish community services, including supported housing, for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization.

Georgia vowed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to the state psychiatric hospitals by this July. It also promised that patients with developmental disabilities who are already in psychiatric hospitals would be moved out of them by July 2015.

Schuble said that at her agency, ‘’the clear and consistent message is: ‘Make it happen.’ ’’

The state has formed several assertive community treatment teams to help people with mental illness, and has established a crisis stabilization unit in Flowery Branch, with another set to open in Rome in June. More than 100 people with mental illness will receive supported housing by July 1, and 60 people are receiving job help, Schuble said. The state has also set up case management programs.

Much of the activity has centered on the Rome area, where Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital, one of the seven state-run psychiatric hospitals, is scheduled to close Sept. 30.

Schuble said forensic patients there are being moved to hospitals in Atlanta and Columbus. About 30 people with developmental disabilities remain in the Rome hospital, along with 30 to 40 people with mental illness, she said.

A leader of the Rome chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said in an interview that the area’s assertive community treatment team is not yet fully assembled. Bonnie Moore, a NAMI Rome board member, also noted that Northwest Georgia Regional is still getting admissions, because the state has not finalized agreements with private hospitals.

Sherry Jenkins Tucker of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network said there are ‘’’tremendous concerns’’ about ongoing issues such as housing for people with mental illness. But she added, “The state is doing as well as can be expected on the tight timeline they have.’’

The Mental Health Consumer Network is establishing new ‘’peer support’’ wellness centers, funded by the state, for people in Bartow and White counties, Tucker said.

National mental health organizations generally see the state’s agreement with the Justice Department as an unprecedented effort toward building a robust array of community services to keep people with disabilities from requiring hospitalization.

Rosalynn Carter, who has been first lady of both Georgia and the nation, said at the forum, “Georgia has all the ingredients to become a leader. States are looking to us.’’

Thom Bornemann, director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, added  that the state is “being watched nationally” on the progress it makes. “We have the hardest part ahead of us,” he said.