Orlando Sentinel: My Word, by Vicki Garner, Exec.VP

Recently, while working in my office, I received a desperate call from a woman who wanted to see if I could help someone because I run the operations of the largest mental-health center in Orange County.

The call was from a well-intentioned person from a downtown Orlando business who had been trying to help a mentally ill woman for several months. It didn’t take long to figure out that the mentally ill woman had suffered for 30 years from schizophrenia, a debilitating brain disorder that can steal life in a horrifying manner.

This is the population we serve at Lakeside Behavioral Healthcare. Although funding is constantly a battle for us, we have services in place for those with or without insurance. I knew all I had to do was get the woman into Lakeside, and she could be helped.

Later, when she was brought in, I found out she had already been to Lakeside five times in the past six months. Each time, she was treated with medication and therapy and offered every service Lakeside has. She received disability checks each month and Medicaid. However, she decided she did not want these services. She didn’t even want a place to live.

That’s the cruel part for many with mental illnesses; you don’t know you are ill. This woman’s brain disorder tells her the medication that we give her is poisoning her. With each admission, she was assigned a public defender who made sure her right to remain without treatment was protected; her brain disorder told her this is what she wants.

Now she is on the streets of Orlando, where she has been for about nine months. Why only nine months? That’s when she came to Orlando; she may very well have been given a bus ticket here, like so many other people. Our staff will keep trying to help her, though. If only one of them can develop a relationship with her, we might convince her to trust someone enough to engage in our services.

But what is really needed to prevent this type of cycle is permanent supportive housing at the start of the illness. Lakeside is beginning to provide supportive housing in Orlando, but it takes funding and support from the community. People with mental illnesses need to live in houses like the rest of us — in ordinary, clean houses in regular neighborhoods. They need professional and peer support. They need friends, they need family, and they need love.

If something had been there for this woman, then I wouldn’t have to tell that nice businesswoman on the phone there is nothing I can do to help.

Vicki Misner Garner is executive vice president of operations at Lakeside Behavioral Healthcare in Orlando.

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