Sandwiched between an earthquake and a hurricane, in the hottest month of the hottest year on record, Georgians celebrated their own force of nature at the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Georgia Mental Health Consumers Network (GMHCN).
For the 550 people who gathered on St. Simons Island, the two-day August conference was packed with chronicles of recovery from a mental illness and stories of successful transformations. And of a movement that began with thirty dollars and an equal number of volunteers, growing into a vibrant organization that now boasts 4,000 members and a staff of 50.
Two of the recovery movement's earliest activists, Joel Slack and Larry Fricks - among the movement's rock stars -- were featured speakers, along with Georgia's Commissioner of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, Dr. Frank Shelp. Each described how to his platform could unlock the potential of recovery.
Certified Peer Sepcialists
The expansion of certified peer specialists took center stage in this year's conference. Georgia pioneered training people in recovery in recovery from a mental illness who could work in community settings to promote the recovery of others. In the last 20 years the practice has spread nationwide with training programs to certify peers and enable them to work in public settings.
The expansion of Georgia's certified peer counselors from 650 to 3,000 figures prominently in current efforts to reform the entire service system. Officials expect at least one certified peer specialist will become part of every treatment team, and at least one will be working in every crisis stabilization unit.
The Medical College of Georgia recently hired two certified peer specialists to inform medical professionals about recovery, said Commissioner Shelp. He also recommends expanding the mandate to train certified peers specialists with a background in recovery from addiction.
The sum of these initiatives will firmly anchor treatment and recovery programs in the community, consistent with expectations from the Supreme Court's 1999 Olmstead decision, and reinforced with last year's agreement with the United States Department of Justice. The agreement followed years of investigations into allegations of abuses, a rash of suicides, and newspaper investigations into the state hospital system.
The DOJ agreement requires providing a menu of resources for 9,000 mentally ill people in community settings. While other states are cutting back services and curtailing obligations of Medicaid, Georgia is in a unique position to grow and improve its system.
This year, Rome Hospital, in Northeast Georgia was closed, leaving fewer than 350 people in the inpatient adult psychiatric system.
A consequence of closing Rome Hospital was the opening of two peer support centers to meet the needs people leaving the hospital, said Mark Baker, Director of Advocacy. Redirecting money into the community has been a stumbling point for states that have not used the opportunities to track the resources from inpatient into outpatient services.
Baker added that closing Rome Hospital was a direct result of the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision, a landmark case originally brought by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society on behalf of two women seeking discharge from the Georgia Regional Hospital.
At an open mic meeting, the commissioner fielded questions and complaints about service vacuums, especially in rural areas. The disparity in workload for peer specialists was also of particular concern. Several certified peer specialists said they handle a full case load yet are paid less than colleagues with one-third as many people. He vowed to investigate why upper limits for a maximum caseload had become the practical norm.
He also floated the idea of continuing training and education, a backbone of most professions, to sharpen and upgrade skills.
The year's progress
Central to the annual meeting is a membership vote for the five priorities for change.This dates from the founding conference 20 years ago, and is part of the movement's moral grounding, said Larry Fricks:
"From day one it was the vision that we would bring together the people experiencing what it's like to live in recovery from mental illness and addiction, and we would let them speak and we would put aside our own issues to unite and promote what they wanted as top priorities."
For the second year in a row, Commissioner Shelp described the actions taken by his department to address last year's list. They include:
- •A program to expand housing and a director of housing within the division. Although the numbers are still in the low hundreds, with additional funding from the legislature, expansion will include people who are homeless, or at risk for homelessness. To ease the transition to housing, funds covering one time expenses underwriting a successful move have been allocated.
•In addition to including consumers in the general state reform of transportation, effort is underway to end segregated travel. Rather than have special buses for people with disabilities, the goal should be have the public transportation "go to special places," he said.
•Implementation of a training program for the professional staff in conjunction with the RESPECT, Int., seminar. Respect is the core of recovery.
The commissioner made clear that his work was made easier by the support of newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal, for whom mental health courts and problems of addiction are a priority. Both were mentioned in the new governor's state of the union
speech in January.
But, it is the activists who comprise the network gathered at St.Simons in August to whom he looks. They are "the most important advocates," he said, "the most important examples of success." Judging from their response, it appears that the enthusiasm is mutual.