[Hpn] Mental Health Sytem Fails Homeless

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 26 Jun 2005 12:35:22 -0400

June 26, 2005


Homeless man describes life coping with mental illness

William Thompson, a local homeless man, says he doesn't feel he's been
well-served by the state's mental health system. And last week, the N.C.
Psychiatric Association issued a report saying that four years into the
mental health reform, things aren't changing very fast.

So I'm going to spend a couple of days on the mental health beat. We'll
learn about Mr. Thompson's situation today, and I'll explore the overall
state of the reform in Tuesday's column.

I spoke to Mr. Thompson on Wednesday at Good Shepherd Ministries' day

He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, what used to be called manic
depression. He swings from an elated or agitated state into depression and
back, sometimes within a single day. He also says he hears voices and sees
things that aren't there.

Mental health treatments are confidential. I spoke with Art Costantini,
director of Wilmington's Southeastern Center for Mental Health, and with
James Osberg, director of Cherry Hospital. Both organizations have provided
services to Mr. Thompson, but neither director could comment on his
treatment or even confirm that he was a patient.

Mr. Thompson, 45, is originally from Whiteville. He was married and has a
son. He has worked on a farm, joined a carnival and helped run a homeless
shelter. Now he's on the streets, looking for work through Good Shepherd's
jobs program.

He has been in and out of the mental health system. He spent some time at
the Walter B. Jones Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Greenville.

When Mr. Thompson takes his medicine, he's calm, lucid and well-spoken. "If
I forget, nobody wants to be around me," he said. He gets into fights.

He said he takes three medicines designed to even out his highs and lows,
along with diabetes medicine and an asthma inhaler he uses when needed.

He said he was admitted to Cherry Hospital, one of the state's four
psychiatric hospitals, for a two-week stay that ended June 8. After two
days, he said, officials at Southeastern Mental Health agreed that he needed
more time there and sent him back for another week.

He said he was released because the hospital is too crowded and that the
group therapy sessions that occupied most of his days weren't effective
because "they don't talk about your problems." He felt he had little in
common with other participants.

He also said he wished the hospital had spent more time adjusting his

Dr. Costantini said the aim of group therapy is to provide support and let
clients share ways of coping.

Dr. Osberg said a patient's personality and background might play a role in
how much they get out of the group sessions.

He also said clients need to have medicines adjusted when they return to
their communities. That's one reason discharged patients are given an
appointment at a local agency like Southeastern within five days.

I applaud Mr. Thompson for telling me his story and for his awareness that
he needs to stay on the medications. Good Shepherd helps make that happen.

Patients are admitted to Cherry because they're in a crisis and pose a
danger to themselves and others. When that crisis is resolved, they are
released and put under the care of a regional provider such as Southeastern.

That's called "acute" care, and the typical stay is seven days. Patients may
be transferred to long-term care, but the aim of state hospitals nowadays is
to send people back to their own communities.

"Years ago, they were places where people came to live and never left," he
said. But because of a Supreme Court ruling, the state reform launched in
2001 and the general "tenor of the times," warehousing mental patients is no
longer the answer.

But even as the state plan mandates state hospitals become smaller and
community facilities grow, Cherry's acute admissions are up 30 percent over
two years.

Why? I'll take that topic up Tuesday.

Contact Si Cantwell at 343-2364 or si.cantwell@starnewsonline.com

All material 2005 Wilmington Star-News