INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — A gathering this week at the Orchid Island home of Nancy Ofstie, Vice Chairman of the Board of the Mental Health Association, brought together the group that plans the association’s yearly fundraiser.
Local dollars keep the Association’s unique walk – in center off 37th Street operating.
The Center is the one local place offering immediate counseling with a certified therapist to anyone who walks in the door.
Grants and donations from local agencies, individuals, foundations and the County allow them to offer services to residents frequently seeking help for the first time.
This year anxiety disorders are at an all-time high. Anxiety can make you sick, causing, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and sometimes leads to a frantic trip to the emergency room.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during the last year 20 percent of American adults have reported suffering with some form of anxiety disorder. Along with depression, it is the most commonly reported mental health disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is commonplace when worry about life events and situations create paralyses or poor solutions to problems. Feelings of fear, worry, and apprehension about health, money, or family can create physical symptoms and interfere with daily functions like work, school, social activities and relationships.
They see plenty of that at the Mental Health Association’s Walk -In Center.
“In this economy, there are many people here living in extreme state of anxiety. With job loss, housing problems, maybe even paying utilities, or medical issues, they can’t sort through the confusion they’re in,” says case worker Bonnie Hurd.
January is even busier than December, as extra activities and distractions surrounding the holidays come to an end.
Bills, family struggles, and other worries become overwhelming for many people as a new year begins.
“A lot of residents wouldn’t think about seeking help through the Indian River County Health Department and don’t know where to turn. They may have insurance, but don’t have metal health benefits or have sky high deductibles. They may have lost their jobs or home for the first time in their lives. We wanted to create a place where anyone could walk in and immediately see a professional,” says Operations Manager Patti Nugent. “Our goal is to teach people how to put their lives back together. Show them how they can become productive and successful on their own, improve their tools for dealing with life, get anxiety and fear under control. Some only need to talk to someone for a few weeks, others have more serious problems. We teach them how to get back on their feet.”
Anyone who walks in is screened almost immediately and quickly seen by one of five licensed therapists. A case worker then addresses tangible difficulties like creating a budget or dealing with housing.
“Forming a plan to deal with material issues is critical for getting back in control. Maybe you don’t even know what bills are the most important. People can be so stressed they need a life coach to figure out how to move forward,” says Bonnie Hurd.
A sliding payment scale based on income makes paying for services affordable for anyone, or they may pay nothing at all.
The idea for a walk-in type of clinic setting for mental health grew out of concerns over a hard-to-reach population in Indian River County, and the success of one of the best known fund-raisers in Indian River County history, the Turtle Trax event of 2008.
The auction of six-foot-long painted turtles at the Turtle Trax fund-raiser in 2008 brought in $500,000 dollars to the Association.
They formed a partnership for funding with the Indian River County Hospital District, the United Way, and Indian River County. Generous support from local foundations and individuals along with $300,000 from the State of Florida also contributed to the creation of the Center.
Since then all funding for the Walk-in Center is local and like a complicated pie chart with many pieces. The one-time funding from the State of Florida for mental health programs ended in 2008.
Yearly support of the Robert F. and Eleonora W. McCabe Foundation, along with donations from other foundations, grants, and personal gifts contribute to its continued operation.
Indian River County, the United Way, and the Indian River County Hospital District continue to provide essential support.
Budget cuts for the county meant a loss of $30,000 this year.
Bob Young, a retired attorney and John’s Island resident, is Chairman of the Board of the Mental Health Association. He feels strongly our community must keep the Center going.
“What we have here is unusual and really needed. There are only one or two other clinics like this around Florida. Public awareness is growing. As a community we need to stay committed to the work they’re doing.”
Nancy Ofstie, whose son suffers from mental illness, says outstanding counseling services are offered.
“We have such a dynamic team of people at the Walk-In Center. It is needed for so many people in our county.”
John is a client who came to the clinic shortly after it opened, having gone first to the ER at IRMC due to suicidal thoughts.
He suffered from severe migraines for 15 years, lost his job in the building trades, and was struggling with alcohol.
Today he is half way through a BS program in computer engineering, and remains in successful recovery for alcoholism.
“I was a mess. I had no clue where to go. I was stressed out and didn’t know how to handle things, how to be positive and think rationally. I was always negative,” he says today. “I wanted to seek some counseling, but didn’t want a hand-out either. I went to the ER first because I didn’t know of any other place. Through the clinic I learned its how you react to things that happen in your life — that’s key. Everyone faces problems.”
Dr. Erwin Ramos, a psychiatrist on a year-long fellowship in community psychiatry from the University of Florida, works one day a week at the Center and hopes to relocate permanently to Vero Beach.
The way the complicated local funding picture works at the Center means he sees clients who are not indigent.
“Ninety-five percent of the people I see at the clinic have anxiety or depression, usually related to economics, but there are other reasons,” he says. “Most do not need long term drug therapy but someone to talk to who can help them learn to better handle their problems. They need counseling but still may have a stigma in their minds with psychiatry. They really have not had a place they could go before.”
“What we try to offer people with the Walk-In Center is like a compass,” says MHA’s Chris Sarkauskas. “Anyone can come in and get help. We try to help them find the direction they need to go.”
“Right now jails are the number one provider of mental health services in Florida. What we are doing in Indian River County with our Walk- In Center is a much better investment.”