For the head of the county branch of a national mental illness support group, Florida’s approach to treating the mentally ill is shocking.
“I’m from the north,” Marsha Martino told about 60 people gathered Tuesday for a panel discussion on the mental health epidemic in Palm Beach County. “I have never lived in a place so devoid of services.”
“This is like a Third World Country.”
Martino lived in Maine and New Jersey before moving to Palm Beach County nine years ago. She has been executive director of the county’s National Alliance on Mental Illness branch since August.
She spoke to a Leadership Palm Beach County class of about 60 at The Palm Beach Post on a panel with Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Mike Gauger, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Joseph Marx and Peter Davey, a young man who has battled mental illness.
The system here makes it hard on the mentally ill, Martino said.
Released from treatment, a mentally ill person likely must wait six weeks for treatment. For some, the act of remembering an appointment six weeks away is an “insurmountable barrier,” she said.
In Maine, she said, a patient would be seen by a team of mental health professionals the next day.
Marx, who presides at first-appearance court, said he sees tragedy daily. When mentally ill individuals are arrested, they lose their job, which means they can’t pay for housing, which means they lose their daily shower and shave, which means they lose the chance to get a job, Marx said.
“They have nowhere to sleep. They’re sleeping in your neighborhood,” he said.
One repeat offender, arrested for having an open container, begged the judge to send him back to jail. “I’ve hit bottom,” the man told Marx.
The judge sought a bed for the man. Nobody had one. Finally, he found a place willing to provide a bed for free. He released the man, ordering him to appear in court two months later.
He did, the judge said. And he was good.
“Judge, you saved my life,” the man told Marx.
Without prompting, the man came back again 30 days later to show the judge he was still clean, still working.
“Nine out of 10 do not come back,” Marx said. “But isn’t it worth the effort?”
But such efforts don’t soothe the populace, Marx said. He hears: “Judge aren’t you getting soft on crime?”
“No,” he says. “I’m getting smart on crime.”
Parental denial is one of the biggest problems, Gauger said. He pointed to the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, to illustrate.
“Many families are absolutely in denial when it comes to substance abuse or mental health issues,” the No. 2 official to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said. “That’s what Adam Lanza did. He locked himself in the room and to entertain him, his mother took shooting and to buy weapons.”
Lanza killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself in December 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.
Awareness is key, the panelists agreed. As is ending the stigma.
Paraphrasing the words of Mother Teresa, panelist Davey said, even when they act badly “love them anyways.”