Mental Health Coalition starts small, readies for Legislature

At the Carson Treatment Center, Executive Director Mary Ellen Waltz deals daily with people struggling with substance abuse and, often, mental illnesses.

Most of the time, Waltz and her staff can find the right help because the center staff "knows how to hook in" to the local mental health system. For a small agency trying to find help for people, the system can be daunting, she said.

"There are so many resources in Carson City alone that we don't know about," Waltz said. "How would it be if we (agencies) could get together and find out how to complement each other? We could work together, and that would be such a help to those with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems."

Waltz is part of the Carson City Mental Health Coalition, a group of more than 25 regional and state government agencies and local mental health providers who are looking at how to better help the region's mentally ill.

"The state of Nevada has always had a fractured (mental health treatment) system," Waltz said. "There is often a repetition of service or an absence of a service. People get in the way of the one who needs help. Those who need help go unheard.

"It's silly. It doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to spend a gazillion dollars to make it better. We need to get better. That means everyone getting off their duffs and off their turf. I foresee a change in the mental health system in Nevada. Our state is in desperate need. A fundamental change is long overdue."

The Carson City Board of Supervisors in 1998 set a goal of identifying community mental health resources. A query here and there from Carson City Manager John Berkich got the coalition on its feet last December.

"This is an issue far more than we anticipated, involving far more agencies than we imagined," Berkich said. "There are a lot of dedicated people providing these services who are dedicated to doing it better."

Coalition members range from representatives of the state mental health system and the Carson City Sheriff's Office to FISH and the Ron Wood Family Resource Center. A year after coalition members began working together, the group convinced the Carson-Tahoe Hospital Board of Trustees to spend $54,000 on a full-time staff person to coordinate coalition efforts and to help establish a legislative agenda.

The agencies deal with many of the same problems, finding funding for their programs, helping people who often can't pay for their services and finding housing for the mentally ill.

Many people using mental health services float among agencies, often without one agency knowing what another agency has done for the client. The coalition is working to create a case management system that would allow efforts to treat the mentally ill to be coordinated between agencies.

"It's important to create a level of interagency cooperation," said David Schroeder, coordinator of clinical services for Carson-Tahoe Hospital's Behavioral Health Services. "We see the same people. For a long time, none of us knew what the other did. We need to know what each of us does. What do we do? How do we work together to help people and how do we do it better? That's what the coalition has done."

Members of the coalition meet every other Thursday and present cases to see what other resources could be used to help clients.

For example, Waltz pointed to a young woman who had drug problems, had her two children placed in the state custody, and came to the CTC "very depressed, suicidal and extremely anxious."

Center staff got her help through Carson Mental Health Center and treated her for her drug problem. The young women is fine now, has her own business and takes classes at the community college.

"The thing is, we know how to do this. Not all centers do," Waltz said. "The thing we didn't know about was the Ron Wood Family Resource Center. She needed parenting classes. Knowing what services are available is important. We go searching and searching for other resources. The difference now with the mental health coalition is we meet every other Thursday and have sitting at the table people of substantial authority so we can shoot through the usual hoops. I can pop up and say, 'We can do that,' or I can look across the table and say, 'We have a case...' That's taking down the barriers to care. We're learning how each other does their jobs. "

Each agency expects something slightly different from the coalition, but the underlying goal is to take their "critical needs," Berkich said, to the Legislature for funding.

Carson's coalition has also joined forces with similar coalitions in both Washoe and Clark counties. In addition to creating more comprehensive care in each community, the three coalitions have a legislative agenda that includes pleas for more housing and more money for medication.

"We've come together as a community, and we're trying to come together as a state at the local government level," Berkich said. "Carson City seems to be the leader of the rural pack, describing the needs of the rural community. That's what it's all about. You're providing more treatment, the right treatment, to the right people. Translated, it's the need for more money."


The Carson City Mental Health Coalition meets again in January. Meetings are held in the Community Center's Sierra Room, 851 E. William St. For information, call the city manager's office at 887-2100.

The coalition is gearing up for the Legislature in February. Part of their wish list:

- more housing for the mentally ill

- more money for medication

- more funding for a comprehensive case management system


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