December 1st, 2011

R.I. ranked first for mental illness, suicide attempts

Rhode Island recently was atop two national studies, indicating the state had the highest rate of mental illness and suicide attempts.

In a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, R.I. had the highest rate of any mental illness among those ages 18 and older, at 24.2 percent. The national average was 19.7. Mass. was at 20.2; Conn., 19.7; N.H., 19.6; Maine, 20.9; and Vt., 19.7.

R.I. also topped the SAMSHA study for serious mental illness, with a 7.2 rate (the national average was 4.6; no other New England state topped 4.7). Additionally, in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, R.I. ranked first among states for suicide attempts, with 1.5 percent of adults 18 and over (or one in 67), compared to 0.5 percent nationally. Conn. ranked second with 1.0; Mass. had 0.2; N.H., 0.3; Maine, 0.8; and Vt., 0.5.

R.I. psychologists say the issue is complex, but likely, the economy played a role in the findings. R.I.’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.

“Obviously people need to work, they need to work to take care of their families, to feel like they are contributing,” says Lisa Uebelacker, Ph.D., research psychologist in Butler Hospital’s psychosocial research department. “Work is very important to people’s physical and mental well-being, both in the sense that it provides a home and food, but also that you are taking care of your family.”

Ann Varna Garis, Ph.D., director of the psychological consultation center at the University of R.I. and a board member of the Mental Health Association of R.I. (MHARI), says homelessness has been an increasing problem in the state. “The people who are chronically homeless have a very high rate of mental illness,” she says.

Combined with decreased federal funding, Varna Garis notes that R.I.’s budget is currently in difficult straits. “The state, for a number of years has been, I think, not as committed as I would like, certainly in terms of expenditures, in terms of mental health services.”

“R.I. is trying to get its financial house in order. I think we have a governor who is very committed to education and mental health services and I’m hoping that things will be turning around in the near future.”

Vivian Weisman, executive director of the MHARI, says the state has a comprehensive community mental health system, but some of that has been eroded by state budget cuts. The remnants of those cuts are “all of the community education that went with it,” she says.

Added Varna Garis, “Back in the days when community mental health centers were starting up, there were a lot of preventative services that went out to the school systems and to the youth, which of course, doesn’t happen now. Community mental health centers seem limited to the treatment of only the very seriously disturbed and crisis situations.”

Varna Garis cited a study done by the MHARI that indicated eight percent of R.I. students say they had attempted suicide and 25 percent felt hopeless enough to halt their usual activities. “Those are the kids that perhaps would have been reached by preventative services,” she says.

Weisman says R.I.’s rankings in the recent studies may be a sign that more people are comfortable seeking treatment. “

Ben Johnson, Ph.D., ABPP, clinical psychologist, director at RICBT Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Coaching and a member of the R.I. Psychological Association, says because of the state’s small size, help is accessible.

“Virtually anyone in the state can come see an expert and receive behavioral therapy and not have to drive more than a half-hour from any location in the state.”

Johnson says R.I.’s mental health needs are noticeable and pronounced. “As the director of a large behavioral therapy practice in R.I., we are busy and there is no shortage of patients.

He says people generally seem receptive to therapy. “So (the state’s high rankings) could be about accessibility issues, diagnostic issues, there seems to be a great willingness on the part of patient to reach out for good psychological care,” he says.

By Pamela Berard

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