08/25/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

We Need Everyone to Connect 4 Mental Health and Just Fix It

August 21, 2014 was a seminal day at the Urban League conference room in Fort Lauderdale. Florida. It was the official roll out of The Broward County Comprehensive Needs Assessment. Many may not find this event particularly exciting. As the pioneering judge of a specialized human rights-oriented mental health court, dedicated to the decriminalization of persons arrested with serious mental illness, I hang on every word and piece of data. Our community's human service deficits are massive and mental health care needs urgent. We are very fortunate here in Broward County. Our mental health/criminal justice collaborative is unique in its values and collaborative spirit (the consultant's words, not mine). It is true: Broward's community treatment providers are true champions of doing more with less.

Yet the larger reality remains grim. Florida, like most states, has not prioritized mental health funding. The state of Florida, long in its race for 50th in mental health per capita spending in the U.S., has been further eroded with the introduction of managed care. Florida's state-wide mental health system, which was always in shambles, continues to worsen. Individuals and families who appear in mental health court are often shell-shocked, broken and in extreme emotional pain. One would think that outmoded stigma, prejudice, institutional policy failures, would have been overshadowed by positive contemporary medical research and policy data, showing positive treatment outcomes and recovery. Yet the stigma and prejudice seems to thrive based upon a long history of uninterrupted policy failures. So we mental health advocates, consumers and stakeholders anxiously wait for the next promising event or initiative.

In November 2013 (Washington D.C.), The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and the National Council for Behavioral Health (National Council) joined with private partners to roll out a new promising initiative. Connect4mentalhealth, a national call to action, is geared to foster a new shift in public attitudes and focuses on the community. Armed with a fresh public opinion survey, which shows that 87 percent of those polled agree that early intervention of mental health treatment is important and should be prioritized. C4MH showcased new evidence based models which have positively impact communities. They include:

  • Henderson Behavioral Health, Ft. Lauderdale, was selected for its evidence-based early intervention program, aiding 700 adults to live an independent lifestyle in supported housing.
  • Vinfen, Boston, for its use of technology to accurately track and report on medication compliance, estimating $3.79 million savings over three years.
  • The Center for Health Care Services, San Antonio, for its collaborative law enforcement, fire rescue emergency response teams, to prevent incarceration or hospitalization.
  • Mental Health America Village, Los Angeles, adding a new level of continuity of care leading to full time employment and community stability.
Kudos to NAMI, National Council, Otsuka America Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and H. Lundbeck for leading this national initiative. This mental health and social justice crisis must be fixed. When we began the mental health court years ago, our community's ultimate goal was to see the day when the court would no longer be needed. When mental health problem would be treated in the same light as any other physical or medical problem. Certainly no one would ever imagine a person would be jailed, for let's say a broken arm. So in the interest of advocating for a broadened coalition, an untapped force, let's not forget our youth and their thirst to act as social change agents.

Which leads me to the film Boyhood. While waiting to see Richard Linklater's brilliant film, across the screen appeared "The Finishers," a tag line to the award-winning Legacy truth- public health campaign. Created by iconic ad agency 72andsunny, this new approach to attack teen smoking, which to be fair, was launched after Connect4mentalhealth, tells the story of cultural change and how to convert anger to empowerment. An effort to "position teen smoking as a relic of a bygone era." According to 72andsunny chief creative officer Glenn Cole, "Finishers aims to capitalize on young people's desires to correct the societal ills of previous generations, such as gender bias and homophobia." By likening declining rates of smoking to outdated technology, it also likens smoking social problems that millennials would like to erase." America desperately needs to correct the human stain of the criminalization of persons with mental illness. So, let's bring everyone into the fold, learn from others and leverage social media to drive new energy in the cause to #justfixit.