Category Archives: View from the Chair

Experiences and musings from the Chair of Mayor’s Mental Health Task Force.

Update from Chair

We are working on finalizing the Task Force’s report and are also transitioning content from this blog to a webpage within the Mayor’s Office section of the revamped Town website: 

The report will probably be released in late September and we will be making presentations to local governments during the fall of 2009 – including the Chapel Hill Town Council in October. I will try to post to this blog as developments occur. There will be some follow-up activities coming out of Task Force work that we hope citizens will step up and help with…


A Busy “Listening” Week

When we started this Task Force, I was resolved to figure out how members could listen to each other and hear additional perspectives on the mental health system and the struggles of those who live with mental illness. I’ve been told that this is a sort of “preaching to the choir” because Task Force members are already deeply immersed in/knowledgeable about mental health service delivery. But, years of working to change human service systems and organizations have taught me that we all develop “mental models” (lenses through which we see things) that sometimes actually BLOCK our ability to “take a fresh look”.

This is why at our last Task Force meeting, I asked members to make presentations to each other about their current activities in the mental health system. I know that each of us learned something new from listening to one another. We will finish these presentations at our March meeting, and we will have an opportunity to listen to Judge Buckner, who has a very unique perspective on both individuals who struggle with mental illness and the system that serves them.

The Listening Sessions we held last week at Town Hall represented another way that we could “listen fresh”. While we didn’t have a huge turnout, we heard the touching testimony of parents who have struggled to guide their children to stability in a system that itself is excruciatingly unstable. We also heard from volunteers and professionals who are working so hard to address the needs of those parents, their children and other consumers.

My week actually began at the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by NAMI-Orange and the Mental Health Association. This was another “listening session” for me and other Task Force members who attended. Here, after being touched by the story Charlene told us of her own journey, we listened for the impact of the current economic crisis on mental health services. And did we ever hear it! Not a pretty picture. Cuts everywhere. It is very important that those who care make sure that our legislators and Governor Perdue hear from us about what is important.

From a purely personal point of view, this last week of listening has helped me realize that our Task Force is not going to “fix” the deep, complex problems tied to a mental health system reform effort that has been less than successful. We are local and we should be looking for places locally where a reasonable amount of action without a whole lot of funding can matter. And, I should say, we’ve already heard some good ideas. We should also be looking for a few areas where local advocacy multiplied across many areas of the state might have an impact.

It disturbs me that we are back at that point where money/survival is such a dominant force in our lives that almost any other “cause” is completely set aside. As I write this, I’m listening to the “talking heads” once more reminding us of the “doom and gloom” which lie ahead – for years to come. So, state cuts in mental health service budgets jump to the top of the list. But, this does NOT stop us from “looking fresh” at the system, making local changes through collaboration, and changing the attitudes (through awareness) of citizens toward those who struggle with mental illness.

Natalie Ammarell, Chair

Why a Mental Health Task Force?

Last summer, the Mayor mentioned to me that former Commissioner Margaret Brown and others had been talking with him about problems that had emerged in the mental health care system, post-state reform. While I haven’t worked in the mental health field for years, I immediately thought back to my experience in community mental health in Boston during the period of “deinstitutionalization” in Massachusetts. I remembered the sense of chaos felt by service providers and consumers alike as funding was reallocated, service programs were shut down, and people were disconnected from providers they knew or couldn’t find support they needed.

Flash forward a few months to when the Mayor asked me to chair a Task Force charged with assessing the state of mental health services in Chapel Hill and environs, increasing awareness of mental health issues in our community and making recommendations to the Mayor and Council. It really didn’t take me long to decide that this was something I wanted to do. Again, my initial point of reference was my experience in Boston, which left me with a life long career interest in improving public and nonprofit human service delivery structures.

However, as I engaged in a series of telephone conversations with prospective members, “why a mental health task force” here and now quickly became apparent. I began to hear that:

  • Implementing the change of mandate and associated restructuring of the Orange-Person-Chatham (OPC) area program has been difficult (to say the least) and the network of services seems not to be a network;
  • Even with UNC serving as a sort of “provider of last resort”, one wonders if there is really a “safety net” in place for all those individuals who don’t already have insurance or Medicaid eligibility;
  • Individuals in all age groups and with a variety of service needs have trouble negotiating the mysterious “system” – especially if they are not immediately in crisis; and
  • (With all due respect) it would seem that the various State players have no vision, no plan, no solutions, no coordination and few funds to offer…

Today, after just two months of Task Force discussions, I am very clear that the dialogue that we can encourage, the sifting and sorting of perspectives, and some of the ideas already on the table can make a difference.

Natalie Ammarell, Task Force Chair