Since 1949, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month throughout this country. Here in Miami County that used to mean a month of celebration at the Osawatomie State Hospital.

Those special events included open house, tours, patient and staff panels and downtown activities in which hospital patients could participate. All that seems very long ago.

For years, primarily in the 1950s and into the 1970s, hospital patients were a part of the community. They worked in local restaurants and area nurseries, assisted in local homes and were customers at local businesses. They even had special roles in the Osawatomie centennial pageant and the area Kansas centennial celebrations.

The special fact about all that was that there were partnerships between state, hospital and community leaders. That, too, seems very long ago.

Some of those changes occurred as governmental requirements for patient privacy emerged. Others happened as the 1960s community mental health care movement began. Functioning folk were discharged into their communities. Those remaining at the hospital presented with illnesses more severe and chronic in nature.

Mental health awareness today doesn’t mean we are going to have a reception for hospital staff and patients. Instead, it seems that we must become more knowledgeable about what’s happening in our hospital and in the area of mental health treatment itself.

The first — what’s happening in our hospital — is a cautionary tale. A year ago, privatization of hospital services was being discussed. We’ve heard nothing publicly since. That possibility was raised as one way to assure the provision of competent and humane care despite budgetary cuts, aging buildings and difficulty recruiting and retaining staff.

Things have improved because the hospital regained certification for Medicaid and Medicare and the media tumult over problems there has disappeared. That tale is online for anyone interested. Just go to the Kansas Health Institute News Service Internet site.

The second issue is not nearly so clear. Look around and you will see that there is increasing use of the term “behavioral health” rather than “mental health.” Most private geriatric psych units call themselves by that term. I am not sure just what it means. It would appear to concentrate on the behaviors exhibited by those with mental illness. If so, the frame of reference would be to place responsibility for behavior change on the individual rather than on eliminating or modifying the root causes of that behavior. It sounds like a term coined by someone who has never struggled with mental health issues.

It’s important to clarify just what is meant and what is intended. Statistics claim that one in four of us will need mental health treatment at some time in our lives. Mental health issues are becoming more evident in our children, and the state of Kansas is trying to deal with those with an umbrella of services for “severely emotionally disturbed” youngsters. The program is still fragmented and some of those services remain jumbled or nonexistent. Still, we have to know where the focus lies — on behaviors or underlying causes?

We’ve learned so much about those causes. We know now that brain chemistry gone awry is the cause of many serious symptoms. Many of our old beliefs, such as the one that sunstroke caused people to become mentally ill, have been completely disproved.

It’s time we learned to discriminate between scientific fact and erroneous theories. Let’s work on that and become even more aware. That could help us, our children and the hospital itself.

Editor and Publisher Brian McCauley can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or brian.mccauley@miconews.com.

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