Where are the gaps in Centre County’s mental health system? Residents speak out

More from the series

Mental Health on Centre

In Centre County, there has been a dramatic increase in “302” mental health warrants. In March 2019, 29-year-old State College resident Osaze Osagie was shot and killed while police officers attempted to serve one of those warrants, sparking controversy across the community. “Mental health on Centre,” an ongoing series from the Centre Daily Times, explores how the mental health system is helping or hurting community members.

During Thursday’s mental health conversation, State College resident Vernon Davis said those battling mental illness need a voice — a voice that more than 30 other speakers tried to provide by sharing their own experiences.

While Davis and his wife try to advocate for their son, he said those without advocates are not being helped by Pennsylvania’s “broken system.”

When Davis and his wife wanted to send their son to a psychiatrist at an in-patient treatment facility, he said they were met with a four-month-long waiting list. When they wanted to know more information about their son’s treatment, they were halted by red tape created by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

During Thursday’s event, residents highlighted what they see as the gaps within the state and county’s mental health services systems, saying that Pennsylvania has done a disservice to its residents who are in need of proper care and treatment facilities.

“We have a broken system that’s going to take people from all over ... to be able to combat it to defeat it because this is just terrible,” Davis said. “The way we’re treating people with mental health is terrible. They need a voice, and I tell you what, you’ll have my voice. What I’ve seen is wrong.”

Reflecting on his experience with in-patient treatment facilities, Davis said he believes facilities are understaffed and overburdened — a common opinion shared by speakers who recounted similar stories about facilities throughout the state.

Dealing with issues of confidentiality, affordability and transparency, residents said they’re concerned about the care those with mental illness receive — if any at all. Concerns were also raised about a lack of resources, lack of protection and a lack of effort aimed to address these mental health issues.

“You know where they can probably get the most help is where they don’t need to go, and that’s (SCI) Rockview,” Davis said. “We have traded one for the other. We have traded the incarceration with the mental health, and at Rockview, they have a whole entire ward full of people who are suffering with mental health that should not be in there.”

Rebecca Shepski has lived in State College for seven years. Before moving to the county, she worked as a case manager in Australia. Shepski said she sees “a lot of gaps” within Centre County’s mental health system.

“You’re talking about continuity of care, but you’re talking about people who are unwell and unable to advocate for their own health care, so you’re putting all of the expectation on the person to go and get a service, and they’re too disorganized to do it,” Shepski said. “The burden needs to be on you to go out and engage the person.”

Shepski urged officials to advocate for laws that allow mental health professionals to act in ways necessary before it’s too late.

“You’ve created a system where you’re asking for crisis,” Shepski said. “You’re saying in order to provide care for you, you have to be in crisis.”

Saying Pennsylvania is about two decades behind in its mental health legislation, Shepski also asked officials to recognize that not everyone is capable to consent on their own.

“The person can’t actively get (care) themselves because the nature of the illness prevents people from recognizing they’re sick,” Shepski said, adding that HIPAA prevents family members from helping, especially in situations when someone struggling with mental illness is asked to sign consent before receiving treatment. “We’re not putting the person first. We’re putting the legal protection of hospitals first, and that’s a problem.”

Anya Lazarow, a State College resident, said she lived in a community residential rehab, an environment for people with mental health issues. While there, Lazarow said she was able to learn skills that helped her better adjust to society in a supportive environment. But in CRRs, there’s a time limit before residents have to transition elsewhere. This timed structure does not work for everyone, Lazarow said, suggesting some CRR beds be transitional and others be more permanent.

“When you live in a CRR, you have access to staff 24/7,” Lazarow said. “When you move out, you are limited. I feel this is when you need more support.”

No matter what an individual is dealing with, Lazarow and other attendees said the county and state need to find better ways to support and care for people struggling with mental illness. Natalie Corman, human resources administrator and director of Centre County’s mental health office, said Lazarow suggestions were exactly what the system needs to address.

“We are like you guys,” Lazarow said. “We want a roof over our heads, food to eat, clothes to wear and maybe employment. All in all, we need to have each others’ back. If not us, then who will? Our county should be like a family, not a broken family.”