April 8, 2004 — The problems of the territory's mental health system continued under discussion Wednesday night as officials and local families met with members of congressional and representatives of national not-for-profit groups at the Tamarind Reef Hotel.
Family members exposed a litany of woes, saying the government's aid to the mentally ill "has failed" and that it "treats the mentally ill as second-class citizens."
The round-table discussion, attended by representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus, members of not-for-profit organizations, and V.I. Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, followed a similar meeting held Tuesday evening on St. Thomas. (See "Speakers cite many mental health-care failings".)
Armed with information from the St. Thomas session, Congressman Danny K. Davis of Illinois said the local system "has failed to deliver resources." He challenged the public to "force the system to reinvent itself." Oscar Morgan, National Mental Health Association policy and program senior consultant, called for the community to speak out and demand changes in the infrastructure. "The voice of the people will make the change," he said.
The territory's mental health system has been plagued with problems including inadequate care, mismanagement of federal funds, inadequate staffing and dilapidated care centers.
Pleading for a renewed sense of community toward those with mental health problems, Annette Jacobs, program coordinator for The Village — Virgin Islands Partners in Recovery, suggested establishing easily assessable one-stop neighborhood help centers. "We need to take the programs closer to the community," she said.
"Everyone is forging forward and we are slipping backward," said Dr. Olaf Hendricks, a St. Croix psychologist. One problem, he said, is that the federal government does not consider cultural issues when allotting funds. "We have federal markers and criteria that do not fit well into the social dynamics of the Virgin Islands," he said. "Family, community and culture play a big role in the recovery of the patients. Sometimes the grants do not take this into consideration."
Annette Scott, a mental health provider, echoed Hendricks' opinion. "Long-term patients get depressed if they are not treated here," she said.
Scott also emphasized the need to hire qualified staff able to work staggered hours. "We are not even addressing the mental health problems of the youth," she said.
Today, "there are less mental health staff than there was 14 years ago," Rita Dudley Grant said, remarking on the dwindling pool of mental health workers. Grant is chief clinical psychologist at VI Behavioral Services.
Gregory A. Bennerson, Police chief of detectives on St. Croix and a former senator, said police need specialized training to contend with the mentally ill. "Police are not properly trained," he said. "Policy makers do not understand the crucial issues of mental health."
Shelia Scullion of Inner Light, a St. John organization that advocates for the homeless, said St. John is devoid of mental health services.
"The services stop with the slash," she said, referring to the common written usage "St. Thomas/St. John." "There are no substance abuse groups, no women's groups, no men's groups on St. John."
Annette Ervin, Social Security district manager, raised another disturbing issue: abuse of the Social Security system by relatives of elderly people who may be suffering from Alzheimer's disease or senility. She cautioned family members to "watch and see if benefits are being mishandled. Mental illness is but a blink away."
The V.I. Mental Health Roundtable was organized by Delegate Donna M. Christensen and sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she is a member. Christensen scheduled the sessions in the territory to bring together local and federal mental-health providers.
The presentations were to conclude with a breakfast meeting and press conference on Thursday morning.
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