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Region lacking mental-health services
Gateway Behavioral Health Services logo
Gateway Behavioral Health Services does provide some services in the area, but is limited.

The stories are startling the first time one hears them.

Like the one Wendy Sims tells about a man who showed up at the Bryan County Family Connection food pantry and threatened to kill himself.

After several phone calls, he was sent to Effingham County because there was nowhere nearer to treat him on that day.

“All I knew was that I wasn’t equipped to handle that, and I didn’t have anybody in the building equipped to handle that,” Sims said.

Through the phone calls, she was able to get the man seen by Gateway Behavioral Services in Effingham County.

“The next option would have been to call law enforcement,” she said.

And then there’s this: There were 37 adolescents from Richmond Hill admitted to a St. Simons Island mental-health-care provider in 2014, most for self-mutilation.

In all, 58 Bryan County residents were admitted to Saint Simons By-the-Sea last year, according to SeaSide Health Services CEO Randy Frost.

Both the number of Bryan residents at the Glynn County facility and the suicidal man showing up at the North Bryan food pantry illustrate part of an overriding problem, said Sims, coordinator of Bryan County Family Connection.

“It’s not just a problem for those who lack resources, it’s across the board,” Sims said. “It’s everybody. People who have insurance, people who are on Medicaid, everybody lacks access to quality mental-health care.”

The issue was one of a number discussed at an April 2 “community conversation” at the Wetlands Center in J.F. Gregory Park in Richmond Hill.  And Bryan County’s not alone. It’s an area problem, Sims said.

Tara Jennings, director of Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition and Sims’ predecessor at Bryan County Family Connection, agrees.

“Mental-health-care providers know there’s a problem,” Jennings said. “However, we don’t have enough funding. Too many times, the mentally ill will get picked up and put in jail, which is not adequate. Or they get picked up and sent to a hospital, where they can triage them, but it’s not where they need to be.”

Even those who do find themselves in a facility where they can be seen by a professional face hurdles.

“Because of insurance policies, even if they’re put in a state entity or a mental-health facility that is the best place for them, insurance cuts them off in 14 days,” Jennings said. “Well, that’s not how it works. It doesn’t mean you’re cured in 14 days.”
Sims has led Family Connection’s Region 12 in focusing on mental health, and the results of a study will be unveiled May 12 in Brunswick. It’s a start, she said.

“Our collaborative always focuses on mental health, but it takes a long time to change a system,” she said.

Gateway does provide mental-health services in Pembroke, but it’s only open Mondays to see people in person. Otherwise, the nearest Gateway options are in Rincon, Hinesville or Savannah, or through calling a hotline.

But if physical proximity to care is an issue, so is the stigma attached to those who suffer from mental illnesses, advocates say.

“My analogy is that, what if I had open-heart surgery?” Jennings said. “I would go back to my employer or the school with a note that says this is what happened to me, this is how you need to work with me, take care of me, whether it’s by excusing me from physical-education class or through my HR at work knowing I’m probably going to need a couple days off to see my doctors.”

That doesn’t work in the case of someone who seeks treatment for depression or some other mental illness.

“It’s all hush-hush, we don’t talk about it,” Jennings said. “It’s my secret, it’s a family secret, and all of a sudden, things go haywire at the office or something happens at school, and now you can’t figure out why this person’s losing it when you didn’t even realize that when they were gone for two weeks they were in a mental-health-care facility.”

There are opportunities for Bryan County to team with other counties to find solutions to the issues, but the next step might be to get past the stigma attached to those who have mental illness.

Jennings referred to the number of kids admitted to SeaSide Health Services.

“It’s been said that’s a cry for help,” she said. “I say, ‘You’re exactly right. Then do something.’”

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