Panel Told Rural Mental Health Services Lagging

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A state panel was told Tuesday mental health professionals are almost nonexistent in outlying areas of Nevada and other states, leading to numerous problems - including high suicide rates - for people who can't get needed counseling.

The state Mental Health Plan Implementation Commission also was told states must abide by a U.S. Supreme Court mandate and not discriminate against disabled people by providing services in institutions rather than community-based services.

The commission also was urged to help resolve inequities like the denial of a state scholarship to a Las Vegas high school valedictorian whose mental illness prevented him from meeting a requirement to take at least two classes per semester.

"We don't have a clue what the incidence and prevalence of mental illness in rural America is," Dennis Mohatt, a senior program director with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said in describing the shortage of mental health professionals in such areas.

More than two-thirds of rural Americans rely on family doctors for mental health advice, Mohatt said, adding that Nevada is no exception because there's a shortage of mental health professionals everywhere but the Las Vegas and Reno areas.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, a member of the state commission, said that more resources in rural areas would help to drop the state's suicide rate - now third-highest in the nation. Leslie added that paraprofessionals would be better than nothing in outlying communities.

Mohatt said training is critical so that mental problems are recognized as soon as possible, adding that specialized training has to go beyond "a few workshops in the Holiday Inn."

The commission chaired by state Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, agreed to try to help UNLV student Wesley Kittell after he said he was denied a state Millennium Scholarship because his mental illness prevented him from taking more than one class per semester.

Townsend said he thought state law permits university regents to make exceptions for students such as Kittell. He added that some legislators will be at the regents' next meeting to support Kittell, who wants to be an architect.

The state panel got encouragement from Daniel B. Fisher, a member of the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health - and a recovered schizophrenic who was hospitalized several times before becoming a psychiatrist, author and public speaker.

The national commission said Americans must be taught that mental illness is not shameful, and Fisher said that's vital because "you can lose everything just by being labeled 'mental illness.'"

Fisher, also a director of the National Empowerment Center, added that states have to work on plans to deinstitutionalize people with mental illnesses, in line with the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision.