Every day, Sherri Wittwer hears the stories of families struggling with mental illness. She also knows firsthand about the fears and frustrations of caring for a child with a mental disorder.
"...Every family who has a loved one with a mental illness can relate to that feeling of holding onto them with all of your might, trying to keep them safe," says Wittwer, who is executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah. "It's like living on the edge. That's a metaphor for our mental health system, which when people can get help is very effective. But there are so many people who fall through the cracks."
On the Edge: Mental Health in Utah, airing Wednesday, October 27 At 7:00 p.m. on KUED, tells the eye-opening story of a mental health crisis being grossly ignored in Utah. Produced and directed by KUED's Nancy Green and Sally Shaum, the one-hour documentary is the story of people diagnosed with severe mental illness and their struggle in a world that has little to offer in terms of care, support and resources
"If you or someone you love is living with a serious mental illness, finding help can seem impossible," says Green. "The mental healthcare system is a maze of public and private resources that can be difficult to access and navigate."
"In my opinion, if you're poor, you get it free. If you're rich you can afford it. If you're middle class, those doors just aren't open to you," says Roger Marcotte, talking about the frustrations of accessing the system in the documentary. "The resources to help just aren't there."
An estimated 230,000 Utahns are in need of care yet are not receiving services. State and federal budget cuts threaten to cripple an already overburdened system. As our healthcare system fails, it's often left to the criminal justice system to take up the slack. Many people with serious mental illness will face criminal charges and jail time, often for minor disturbances.
Says Matt Vicario, who supervises the Mental Health Program at the Salt Lake County Jail, "It's easier for society to incarcerate mental illness than it is to treat and address mental illness. I just don't think we have the patience from a societal perspective to adequately manage mental illness anymore. We're growing impatient with it. And the more impatient we become the more likely we are to lock them up--to put them in a closet."
Among the troubling statistics cited is that the largest mental health institution in the U.S. today is the Los Angeles County Jail. "Jails are becoming the "de facto" providers of mental health services across the country, ironically at a great cost to the public," says Green. "It costs ten times more to provide treatment for a seriously mentally ill inmate than it does to treat them in the community."
Immediately following On the Edge: Mental Health in Utah, KUED will air a half-hour call-in program, Back from the Edge, hosted by KUED's Ken Verdoia. The program will extend the discussion with a panel of guest experts, including Sherri Wittwer, executive director of NAMI Utah. "In working with NAMI Utah, we have recognized an overwhelming need to address the stigma and emotional trauma surrounding families dealing with mental illness," says KUED's Director of Outreach, Jacqui Voland, who is coordinating the outreach services for the project. "We feel this is an extremely important issue to address at this time, which is why we are committed to providing this community service."
Throughout the documentary and the follow-up program, professionals will be on hand to answer questions and provide information. Callers can request a free packet of community resources related to the program. To get your packet, call 801 585-LINK. Visit kued.org/ontheedge for additional information and resources in the community.