Editorial Board interview with

Mental Health Association of Central Florida

In the five years since Central Florida's only free mental-health clinic opened in Orlando, it has helped more than 1, 100 uninsured patients — from college students to low-income workers to homeless people — saving Orange County hospital emergency rooms at least $1.6 million.

"The need is huge, " said Candice Crawford, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida. "And it makes smart business sense. We really could use a place like this in every local county."

Opened in October 2010, the clinic on West Church Street in Orlando celebrated its fifth birthday Wednesday with an open house that brought scores of practitioners, supporters and patients praising those who make its free counseling and medication possible.

Orange County government has provided the building and covers utilities, while Florida Hospital has contributed roughly $1 million over the years for salaries and other costs. The nonprofit mental health association provides referrals via its weekday help line.

The facility is open only to Orange County residents who have no private, government or military insurance and who suffer from anxiety or depression — the most common mental-health problems. The clinic's patients — currently about 350 of them — also have at least one chronic medical problem. Diabetes and heart disease are common.

"We know that patients with chronic physical health issues often have underlying mental health issues, too, " said Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson, Florida Hospital's vice president for community impact. "And if you can't manage the mental health, you can't manage the chronic diseases either."

The clinic also takes referrals from hospitals and community health clinics and often has a waiting list. That list is especially long near the holiday season — often a trigger for anxiety and depression — and during the summer, when the University of Central Florida and Rollins College master's-degree psychology students are unavailable to work internships.

All cases are overseen by psychotherapist Julie Bilsky, the clinic's supervisor, and reviewed by a Florida Hospital psychiatrist.

"When we get a referral, we contact them within 24 to 48 hours to talk to them a little more. And if they're in some crisis mode, we obviously get them in quickly, " Bilsky said. "If not, we tell them when our next opening is, so at least they're not left hanging."

Wanda Hernandez, 48, an Orlando wife and mother, found the clinic in desperation in October 2012. She had surgeries earlier that year to remove a tumor from her neck and then to repair damage to her vocal cords.

The experience itself was traumatic, she said, and subsequent difficulty in swallowing and breathing triggered panic attacks — often two a day. She couldn't work and had trouble eating. Her weight plummeted.

"I didn't want to leave my bedroom, " she said. "I felt so self-conscious. I know people were looking at me thinking, 'Oh, she looks like she uses drugs.' And then I couldn't really talk."

Through ongoing individual and group therapy, Hernandez said she has made tremendous progress. She still goes to therapy there when she feels she needs it, but it is far less often.

Source: www.orlandosentinel.com
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