Recently, I learned that the one and only, longer-term care facility for people with mental illnesses in the county where I live was closed, due to budget cuts by the state of Florida. This program, known as SRT, was the place that literally saved my life three years ago, when I was sent there under a court order called the Baker Act (an involuntary commitment law). Before I went to SRT, I shuffled in and out of the revolving door of numerous psychiatric wards an hospitals, always staying just a short time, until I was sent back out into the world, no better than I was when I had entered the places. I never stayed on the antipsychotic medication outside of the hospitals, because I did not have the insight at that time to know that I needed to be taking it. I did not realize I was seriously mentally ill. In my delusional mind, the medications were actually poisons that were being used to kill me. Many people with Schizophrenia have this belief. It is a common reason why people who are psychotic do not take their medications.
I sent the following letter about this issue to the Governor (Charlie Crist), all of the Florida legislators in the State, all of the Florida Senators and Representatives for my area in Congress, all of the county commissioners, and ali I sent a slightly shorter version to the St. Petersburg Times. Because I did not feel comfortable signing my last name to this letter when I sent it to the Times, they did not publish it. As is usual when writing to government officials, I received several form letters in response, acknowledging that I had sent letters to these officials, but not showing that they actually read what the letters said. However, when I told one woman I know who used to work at SRT, and who was laid off due to the closing, that I had written these letters, she was very happy to hear it, which made me glad that I had done so.
Here is the letter:
Recently the St. Petersburg Times reported that, due to state and county budget cuts, related to the passing Proposition One, the one treatment center for people with mental illnesses in Pinellas County which provided care for longer periods of time than short-term crisis-care units, was closed. This program at the Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services agency (PEMHS), was known as SRT, or short-term rehabilitation. It served as an alternative to the state hospital, for those with severe mental illnesses. I am writing to you, as a voting constituent in Clearwater, who received services, which I needed very badly, at the SRT center, in 2005.
In 2005, I was floridly psychotic from untreated Schizophrenia. I had been in and out of hospitals, where I had received treatment, at least a dozen times in the preceding five years, however I never stayed on medication or sought regular treatment after I was released from hospitals, because I did not realize that I was actually sick. During those five years, I made several serious suicide attempts, the last of which was in May of 2005 and involved a gun with which I would have shot myself to death, if I had not been prevented from doing so by the police, who took me to Morton Plant Hospital to be committed to the psychiatric unit, under the Baker Act.
Unlike my previous hospitalizations from 2000 to 2005, this time I was not released within a week or two and sent back out into the world in the same state I was when I was admitted. This time was different. I was ordered by a judge, under the Baker Act, to receive up to six months of treatment in the SRT program of Pinellas County. Because the SRT program was filled to capacity, I waited seven weeks in Morton Plant before a bed was available at SRT. I then received three months of treatment at the SRT center.
If not for those months, I would be dead right now. I say this with absolute certainty, because while I was psychotic I did not realize that I was dealing with Schizophrenia and I believed that medication was poison which would kill me. However, during this hospitalization, I had to take the medication, and I did. This time, as I was in the hospital much longer than my previous stays, the medication had a chance to actually take effect. I became lucid, my psychosis lessened, and I came to understand that the illness which had caused my years of suffering had a name, and that it was real.
From my involvement with mental health treatment, as well as advocacy groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I have met numerous people who have also been through months of treatment at the SRT facility. In many cases, these hospitalizations were what brought these people back to functioning on a daily basis like a productive member of society, prevented them from long-term hospitalization in a state institution, kept them out of emergency rooms and jails, and provided them a place to recuperate, when it was sorely needed.
Thanks to my own treatment at SRT, I have not experienced homelessness in years, I live in an apartment on my own, I attend college, I work, and I have run support groups for people with mental illnesses. In the past three years I have had only one hospitalization, which was for six days. I take my medication every day, as I have for the past three years, and it helps me to contribute to the world, which is a world, unfortunately, where affordable mental health treatment is harder to come by than treatment for physical illnesses. SRT provided a safety net for people who otherwise fell through the cracks. Now the cracks have widened, the net is gone, and the only people who are concerned about it seem to be those, like myself, who live with mental illnesses, and people who are employed in the mental health field.
The voting citizens and the government of Pinellas County, and the State of Florida must provide necessary services to people with severe mental illnesses. Mental health care is a human right. The grave mistake of closing the SRT center will soon result in people with serious mental illnesses repeatedly going through the revolving door of the short-term crisis psychiatric units in the area, where they are not allowed to stay long enough for their medication to ever take effect. The passing of Proposition 1, unfairly punishes people who, through no fault of their own, are sick with biochemical imbalances. A society can be judged by the way it treats its members who have special needs, and Pinellas County and the State of Florida are doing a very poor job, at the present time, of caring for people with psychiatric illnesses. This must be rectified through swift action, as soon as possible. There must be funding for a short-term rehabilitation program in Pinellas County; lives depend upon the existence of such a program. The lives of people with biochemical brain imbalances are just as valuable as the lives of people who have no such imbalance. Yet, people with psychiatric disturbances are now being treated by Pinellas County and the State of Florida as if their lives do not count at all, and their well-being matters to no one. Please do something soon about this situation. A change in the State budget to provide a program such as SRT in Pinellas County is needed, and it is needed now.