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Official says local discussion on mental health is needed now

The driver of this vehicle survived after crashing it into a stand of trees at nearly 100 mph, prompting the Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Office to send out a plea for the community to start a desperately needed local conversation on mental health awareness. (Photo courtesy of the Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Office)

EAGLE RIVER — Sheriff’s deputies recently responded to a young person who had driven a vehicle into a stand of trees at an unidentified location at nearly 100 mph, according to a post on the Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Office social media page.

The post stated the cause of the crash was that the young person had decided to commit suicide.

The motorist was transported to a local hospital, where medical care was administered, and Copper Country Mental Health was subsequently called in to assess the patient and decided the subject was not a threat to themselves and was sent home with a “safety plan.”

Sheriff Curt Pennala said the main reason for the post was his department expressing its frustration, and to raise awareness of what law enforcement is dealing with, as well as what the public is also dealing with.

Pennala said when his officers are working and someone is deemed to be a risk or a harm to themselves or somebody, the person is taken into protective custody and transported to the nearest hospital for mental health evaluation. The number of such incidents has risen significantly in the past year, since the beginning of the COVID-19 restrictions.

“As sheriffs, we are elected to protect all the citizens in our counties, including those who may be going through difficult times,” the social media post stated. “In the past month, we have transported several people who were looking for help, to be evaluated by our local mental health. Do you want to take a guess on how many received treatments? None. When are we going to have a meaningful discussion on the broken mental health system in Michigan?”

Pennala said he wants to be clear that this is not aimed at CCMH.

“They do a fantastic job,” he said. “I believe that they have their hands tied by a lack of funding and a lack of resources,” then added that the people and agencies his office works with share the same frustrations.

“In our local community, I think a lot of people share the frustration of the lack of mental health resources available,” he said.

The social media responses to the post seem to verify Pennala’s assertion. One responder posted:

“It’s not only in Michigan that this problem exists, unfortunately. Yes, serious changes need to be made to our broken health care system. A good place to start is taking the decisions of care out of the hands of the insurance companies.”

Another poster voiced similar concerns, stating that “this is not only the sheriff’s department, but community shortage of counselors who can help people struggling. We need help even more so than before and not be told ‘You are just tired, go home and get some sleep, you will feel better.’ People are getting in trouble in hopes they will get some help, yet this is causing even more issues. When will the help be there for those of us who really need it?”

Pennala said another frustrating element is that along with the lack of resources, someone may be in a situation that finally compels him or her to reach out for help, only to be turned away at that point.

“They may never reach out for help again,” he said, “until it’s too late.”

Pennala said that he believes it is time that society recognizes that seeking help with mental health is no different than seeking medical assistance.

A report from the American Psychiatric Association states that as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death (after accidents) for people ages 10 to 34, suicide is a serious public health problem.

In 2019 in the United States, over 47,000 people died by suicide and the rate of suicide has increased every year since 2006. An estimated 1.3 million adults attempt suicide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than one in five people who died by suicide had expressed their suicide intent.

National Alliance on Mental Illness recognizes May as National Mental Health Awareness Month, and states on its website that each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness.

“During May, NAMI joins the national movement to raise awareness about mental health,” the website states. “Each year we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.”

NAMI states that the message for 2021 is “You are not alone.”

“For 2021’s Mental Health Awareness Month,” the website states, “NAMI will continue to amplify the message of ‘You Are Not Alone.’ We will use this time to focus on the healing value of connecting in safe ways, prioritizing mental health and acknowledging that it’s OK to not be OK through NAMI’s blog, personal stories, videos, digital toolkits, social media engagements and national events.

“Together, we can realize our shared vision of a nation where anyone affected by mental illness can get the appropriate support and quality of care to live healthy, fulfilling lives — a nation where no one feels alone in their struggle.”

The Keweenaw County Sheriff’s Office post echoed that sentiment, saying:

“We are asking that you help us start the discussion locally, contact your state representatives, contact your mental health board and help us figure out how we can fix this problem. These are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who are crying out for help. We owe it to ourselves to make a change.”

For more information on NAMI, and ways to become involved, please visit www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month.

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