Our local NAMI bylaws call on us to provide a mutual support, education and advocacy group for the families and friends of people with serious mental illness and to work to improve the lives of people with serious mental illness. There’s a little more to that—we’re to support research and advocate for improved treatment, housing, and other services and for the rights of persons with mental illness, as well as propose and conduct programs in the community, and raise funds.
Nowhere does it say how we are to be effective. And one way to be effective is to observe and monitor what goes on in government and the local service programs so we have an idea what we’re talking about. We’ve really dropped the ball on this, just as NAMI national doesn’t keep a line by line voting record of Congress people on issues important to us. And NAMI NYS doesn’t monitor the NYS Legislature to see that constituent wishes are followed through on.
On that score, how lawmakers vote, we lose out by never following up with them to ask how they voted on a single issue and what we might do to change their minds. It’s all fair game.
Monitoring goes hand in hand with advocacy. We have to put some teeth in our advocacy and one way is to keep tabs on what the lawmakers at state and local levels and directors of agencies do affecting mental health and Medicaid, homeless services, housing, elderly care and assistance to the poor, among key topics. Most of their money comes from the state to be distributed to the county and various agencies. But people who make up these boards and committees voice their politics over these issues and they influence the community in which we live.
It’s not easy to monitor company board meetings but we can get the information once we know what to ask for. We can interview directors of mental health and housing programs about the actions they take. We can ask the hospital’s public relations office or community relations at the health care insurance plans like MVP. We can go to public meetings like those of the county community services board and its mental health subcommittee, and we can join these boards.
But we still don’t learn much unless we know how to press for facts about their performance on the issues we raise. We haven’t been doing this, not because we’re not capable of it, but we’re lazy. And if we don’t press them we don’t keep them honest and ready to defend what they do in this arena. That goes for city, town, county and state and federal officials and lawmakers.
We do have examples how monitoring can pay dividends. Our allies on the criminal justice committee of the League of Women Voters have observed the county’s alternative treatment court (mental health court) over the years, two or three of them sitting in sessions month after month. They now have a good estimate of how the court works and what it needs.
Some other issues have to do with law enforcement and criminal justice. We’ve already formed a committee and are urging the city police department and sheriff’s office to train officers for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). It’s a safer way to deal with someone with disruptive behavior on the street or in the home. We want to form a criminal justice task force by inviting the police chief, district attorney, public defender and city judges to meet together with people from mental health, probation and social services. They’d deal with sentencing, the issues of alternative courts, diversion to treatment instead of jail and the other needs of people involved in the criminal justice system. That’s monitoring, too.
We need a few friends at city and county government level who we can reach out to. The county board reviews and votes on spending for mental health, Medicaid, and nursing homes, for instance, although most of it comes in the form of state aid. The City Council votes on the federal Community Development Block Grant and awards money to police and firemen rather than to needs in the low income community. Individual members on city and town boards and on their planning committees have blocked needed housing applications for the disabled population. City council has promoted the move out of the YMCA and Bethesda House from downtown. If we choose to, we can write or call these leaders or speak at council meetings. Why not hold them responsible for how they vote?
Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority is another agency that bears watching to see it applies for all the available federal HUD grant money for more affordable housing. We just need to keep after them. Ellis Hospital should get our attention, too. Its management approved plans to move Collage social club downtown before consulting consumers and families who have an interest in this program. So far, over objections, the move is going through. It’s another lesson. (Roy Neville)