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Speaker highlights disparities in mental health, addiction services

by Sherry Fisher - June 2, 2008


Data show “consistently and repeatedly” that Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities do not receive the health care treatment they deserve for mental health and addiction problems, according to Thomas Kirk, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“Too often, people of color with mental health or drug addiction problems are treated as if they have acute care disorders,” said Kirk, one of the keynote speakers at a May 20 conference, “Eliminating Mental Health and Addiction Disparities in Connecticut and Beyond,” held in the Rome Ballroom.

Mental health and drug addiction problems are not acute care disorders, Kirk said: “They’re continuing care disorders. Even when a person is in remission, so to speak, they still need health care strategies to sustain their stability and recovery.”

The goal of the conference, sponsored by the Connecticut Center for Eliminating Health Disparities among Latinos, was to spark new ideas and collaborative work in understanding and addressing healthcare inequities in the areas of mental health and addiction.

Conference participants included researchers, public health practitioners, social workers, community agencies, and students. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a UConn professor of nutritional sciences, is the director of the Center.

Kirk said the data “clearly show consistently and repeatedly that health care disparities exist in Latino, African American, and Native American communities.”

He said these groups are both misdiagnosed and overdiagnosed. Many times, he maintained, the diagnostic data for mental health and addiction problems among Latinos and African Americans say “diagnosis deferred” or “unknown.”

“That reflects lack of attention and lack of quality in terms of identifying the condition that is required for treatment,” he said.

Kirk talked about a study conducted by John Kotter of the Harvard Business School that examined leadership strategies for successful transformation in health care organizations and other groups.

Communicating a strong sense of urgency was what moved people to change, Kirk said. Such a sense of urgency is “more important than vision,” he added. “It’s more important than funding.”

As Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Kirk is a member of Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s cabinet, and is responsible for a $600 million behavioral healthcare budget that supports hospital and community-based care and prevention, treatment, and recovery support services delivered by private nonprofit service agencies.

Kirk believes substance abuse and mental illness are treatable health care issues, and that recovery should be hoped for and expected.

Anyone who goes through a health care system should expect that he will get better, he said, but that has often not been the case with minorities with psychiatric problems.

“Too often, with mental health and addictions, that has not been the message we’ve given,” he said.

“We talk about people with persistent, prolonged mental illness. We talk about people with substance abuse disorders and chronic relapsing diseases. The emphasis has to be on recovery.

“Chances are that 80 percent of the people in this room have some type of chronic health care disorder,” he added.

“You take medication, you watch your diet, you do exercise, you go on with the rest of your life. It should not be any different for persons with substance abuse or mental health disorders. Continuing care needs to be part of the strategies.”

Connecticut’s hospital emergency rooms – like many across the country – are experiencing extraordinary demands, Kirk said.

“Who repeatedly shows up in emergency departments?” he asked: “People of color, and those of Latino and Hispanic origins. Often the emergency room has become their primary care setting. We need to do something about it.”

Eliminating health disparities involves simultaneous initiatives, he said, including developing academic and community partners.

“Community resources are an essential component of recovery,” he said.

Kirk urged the audience to communicate the sense of urgency. “The sense of urgency screams for attention,” he said.

“It is time for the people of Connecticut to act. Be a leader. People’s lives depend on you every day.”

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