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MHA: 'Here to prevent horrible outcomes'

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of September 20, 2012)
Photo: Mental Health Association headquarters and walk-in clinic.

Last year, when a young man found his grandfather so distraught he was at the verge of suicide, he brought him to the walk-in clinic of the Mental Health Association.

That grandfather’s visit was one of 10,000 visits to the Vero clinic in 2011 when for one reason or another, emotions spinning beyond control weren’t going to wait for an appointment.

The walk-in clinic, located near Indian River Medical Center, operates on a free or sliding scale fee arrangement. It could not have opened at a more fortuitous time: 2007, when the foundation was about to crumble from many already living on the edge. No patient is turned away for lack of money. The clinic gets no state or federal funds.

“We’re here to prevent horrible outcomes,” says MHA president and CEO Kris Sarkauskas. “We know it’s better that they be seen sooner rather than later because if it’s later, they’re going to cost the taxpayer more when they end up in the E.R. or the jail. And the jail is definitely not the place to treat someone.”

The Mental Health Association dates back to 1958, though it incorporated in the 1970s. When Sarkauskas started working there in 1996, there was only a crisis line and a drop-in center, a rented space where chronically mentally ill people could go to socialize. No therapy was offered outside of referrals.

Then in 1999, a tragedy provoked an island couple to take on the cause of mental health. Bob and Ellie McCabe lost a son to suicide. Soon after, Ellie McCabe was on the phone to the director of the family’s foundation. “I was in Saratoga and I called Leonora (Ritchey) and I said, ‘We’re going to work on mental health.’ She did all the research and she found that mental health services were so disjointed here that there was no continuum of care.”

To address that, they started the Mental Health Collaborative to identify the most critical mental health needs. 

“There were hardly any psychiatrists in town, and those that were here had a long waiting list, sometimes six months,” said McCabe. “We decided what we needed most was a walk-in clinic.”

That’s when the half-century old Mental Health Association took on a compelling new role.

“Since then, MHA has been a provider of immediate access for people with emerging mental health issues,” says Ritchey. “They stepped up to the plate when there was really no one else providing help.

The walk-in center has “grown and grown and grown,” says Sarkauskas. Staffing includes therapists equaling six full-time positions and community psychiatrist Dr. Erwin Ramos of the UF Center for Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. His services are paid for by the hospital taxing district. When the health department started sending its psychiatric patients to the MHA, the walk-in center added another day for Ramos.

“I can’t tell you how important this place is,” says McCabe. “This is very dear to my heart.”