“You Are Not Alone” has been chosen as the theme for Mental Health Awareness Month this year. It’s particularly apt to be reminded that we’re not alone after more than a year of isolation in quarantine. Even before the pandemic, experts estimated 52 million American adults experienced some form of mental illness: that was 1 in 5. The Centers for Disease Control now reports that 1 in 4 adults have symptoms of anxiety or depression. In other words, the public health crisis of COVID-19 has shone a light on the nation’s other major health need: increased awareness and care for mental illness.
Protecting the rights of Nebraskans with mental illness through monitoring their residential facilities is essential to prevent abuse and neglect. Consider the case of a facility in Palmer, Nebraska (population 524), where a veteran suffered vomiting and diarrhea for three days without treatment until she finally was found dead in her room. The facility had been the target of inspectors for numerous deficiencies, but action to revoke the facility’s license took too long to save the veteran’s life. The “house of miseries” wasn’t just the site of this woman’s death—it had been an unsafe place for many years for all the people with mental illness who lived there.
Raising awareness about how Nebraskans with mental illness are shoved aside into these dubious settings is one aspect of our work to ensure every Nebraskan is able to receive the support and help they need.
Raising up the voices of Nebraskans with mental illness to guide our work is another essential aspect of what we do. During the last year, the volunteer community members on the Protection and Advocacy of Individuals with Mental Illness (“PAIMI”) Advisory Council met on a monthly basis to help ensure the agency’s work was grounded in the actual needs identified by those with lived experience. PAIMI members met virtually to discuss how to get the word out about filing complaints related to COVID-19 as well as to discuss the facilities most in need of agency attention for possible abuse and neglect.
We want to ensure that every Nebraskan—even one in a lonely locked ward or in an isolated rural community or in a large urban homeless shelter—knows they are not alone if they are living with mental illness. Fighting to ensure their rights, their dignity and their full participation in their community is our mission year round, though Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to reflect on the work yet to be done.
Visitation restrictions are beginning to be lifted in most facilities across the state, which means our staff will begin resuming in-person monitoring soon. While we don’t want to believe there are any other “houses of misery” like the Palmer facility, we also know that such conditions could occur again without an ongoing watchdog presence.
If you or a loved one has experience of an assisted living facility or other congregate residential placement that seemed unsanitary, unsafe, or lacking in appropriate care, please contact us. Complaints are confidential and help guide us to the hidden places that need their doors thrown open.
Remember: you are not alone. The White House is discussing ways to expand mental health care in new legislation. Peer support across social media platforms such as Facebook live events and even TikTok videos have connected people more than ever before. During this Mental Health Awareness Month, remember that our communities are best when everyone feels they belong.