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Fixing a mental health system takes time


My wife has suggested that I have a mental health problem when she finds me talking to myself. I have never told her that a former school teacher suggested talking to myself while refining a speech I was scheduled to present in a contest.

The practice has worked for me for almost 50 years. While driving from a news event I may work out the details of a story by talking it out verbally before sitting down at a computer keyboard.

I don’t believe talking to yourself is what President Barack Obama had in mind when he proposed increasing access to mental health services as one way to reduce gun violence.

The overall issue of violence in America is much more complex than simply controlling firearms. There should be an expectation of effective care for the mentally ill to help control violence in our country.

Obama says we need a national discussion about mental health. Mental health professionals say improving understanding and eliminating stigma is needed.

A national database to track the mentally ill is not the answer. It would make those with mental illness second-class citizens.

One way is to recognize when someone is in trouble and how to provide assistance to someone experiencing a problem until professionals can arrive and take over. It’s akin to providing basic first aid to an accident victim until paramedics arrive.

Recent research suggests that preventing psychiatrists from sharing their patients’ records with their other doctors may actually do more harm than good.

Some of the most sensitive information in medicine involves mental health care, from diagnoses, medications and notes that psychiatrists include in patients’ records. Health care professionals go to great lengths to keep those records private.

Two psychiatrists I know oppose release of private patient information, even after reading a recent published study that found hospitals that both use electronic psychiatric records and allow them to be shared with other doctors have a 32-39 percent lower rate of readmission within a month of patient discharge for mental illnesses.

While electronic medical records are supposed to improve efficiency and accuracy of information sharing, a majority of the best hospitals in our country don’t share information. Certain parts of psychiatric records that are highly sensitive should not be shared, my psychiatrist friends say.

Obama’s proposals to stop bullying and boost availability of mental health services may have merit, but he will have a hard time selling the latter in some health care circles.

It might be easier to sell the National Rifle Association on approving bans on assault weapons, ammunition clips holding more than 10 bullets and a universal background check on gun buyers than mental health professional sharing information on their patients.

The next time I go trout fishing with one of the psychiatrists, I am taking a tape recorder. He talks to the fish he is trying to land. It might help explain my habit to my wife.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.