Mayor: Mental health care could help combat violence in York City

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

With nearly three months left in the year, the number of shootings in York in 2018 has already surpassed that of 2017. 

The city's more than 40 shootings this year might be linked to insufficient access to mental health care facilities in the area, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said. 

"There are few people that live in York that aren't, that don't suffer from some kind of effects of trauma," he said. "You know, I myself, when I hear a balloon pop or a car backfire, the first thing I think is, 'Oh no, a gunshot.' Well, to even think that way shows an effect of trauma." 

In front from right, Anthony Jones, of Baltimore, and Devin Hill, of York City, father and brother, respectively, of shooting victim Dezmen "Dez" Jones, 15, reflect for a moment as family and friends gather for a candlelight vigil behind a home at in the 600 block of West Princess Street in York City, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. Dezmen, a member of  Pedal 4 Peace, an organization that strives to bring people together through cycling, was shot at the location on Wednesday, Sept. 26, and later died at York Hospital from his injuries. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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That trauma could potentially lead to a violent life, Helfrich said. 

"Now, imagine all the young kids that have seen violence in their homes or on the streets of their neighborhoods, that have been woken up by guns and had to hit the floor because they are scared," he said. 

Amie Scheidegger, an associate professor and coordinator of criminal justice at York College, said there is a direct link between exposure to violence and mental health issues. 

People exposed to violence can develop post traumatic stress disorder as well as other mental health issues such as depression, Scheidegger said. 

Depression is associated with behavior disorders and poor school performance, she added. 

"It's a complicated issue and vicious cycle," Scheidegger said.

While mental health issues can result from exposure to violence, a person exposed to violence will not "automatically be a criminal," she said.

Ronay Hershey, a board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the population of people with mental illnesses committing violent crimes is "very small, but they stand out when it happens."

People living with mental illnesses can be productive members of society, but when left untreated, mental illness can cause problems, Hershey said. 

It's an issue magnified by increasing medical and medication costs that can lead to self-medication, she added. Self-medication can lead to addiction, which can lead to other types of crime and erratic behavior, Hershey said. 

"So all of these things are spillovers from not having the right care at the right time," she said.

Access to mental health care, Scheidegger said, is one way to prevent and handle violence.

"Just to, again, break that cycle," she said. 

Limited access: York City has fewer health care facilities when compared with surrounding areas, according to a Family First Health report from 2012.

Helfrich said the city could "probably use five to 10 times the amount of mental health assistance" it currently has. 

There is one mental health care provider for every 2,207 York City residents, according to the report. 

Comparatively, there's one mental health care provider per 1,587 residents in York County and one mental health care provider per 837 residents in Pennsylvania, according to the report. 

The number for the city is set to decrease even more, according to Hershey and her fellow National Alliance of Mental Illness board member Sheryl Dahlheimer of York City. 

Dahlheimer received a letter from WellSpan Philhaven dated Oct. 1 stating that "due to a change in billing and insurance requirements," some clinicians at the Edgar Street location no longer accept Dahlheimer's Medicaid, and she would have to pay out-of-pocket or find a new provider. 

Dahlheimer is one of 134 city residents set to lose coverage from that therapist, she said. 

Hershey said there are likely more providers cutting Medicaid across the city, county and state in following with a nationwide trend.

Therapists need to go through extra steps in order to provide care to patients on Medicaid, Hershey said. 

"A lot of people don't want to spend that time, energy and effort; these tests aren't simple for them to take and are time-consuming," Hershey said. 

Dahlheimer 's letter from WellSpan continues, "Our staff will work with you to find a nearby provider who participates with your insurance." 

For some, switching providers means losing more than a decade of trust built between a patient and therapist, Hershey said.

Hershey likened it to starting a new relationship. 

"They feel very comfortable with them, and ongoing treatment helps them maintain their current status, utilizing the tools they're giving them," Hershey said.

Losing a therapist also can dissuade some patients from seeking additional care, Dahlheimer said.

Ending stigma: Just as with diabetes and other diseases, mental illness needs to be treated, Dahlheimer said, but some people are reluctant to seek care. 

Helfrich agrees.

 "There's a huge stigma against getting assistance, even talking to people or counseling," Helfrich said. 

The stigma surrounding mental illness also can lead to difficulty identifying signs of mental illnesses, Hershey said.

"People don't try to understand it. They don't try to understand their levels of depression or what levels of bipolar exist to be able to recognize it in someone — whether it be their spouse, their child or anyone else in their family," she said. "If we had more of an understanding as a society, I think we would be able to recognize those things a lot quicker." 

Support groups: NAMI hosts several free public support groups to provide information on mental illness and give a space for people to come together and discuss issues.

There are two weekly connection support groups in York: a group that meets from 6 p.m to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Luther Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1907 Hollywood Drive, and another that meets from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Thursdays at the NAMI York County headquarters, 140 Roosevelt Ave. 

NAMI also hosts a family support group from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at Luther Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church for family members or friends of individuals living with a mental illness. 

The groups can help people "feel like they're not alone" and in some cases get preliminary help as they await treatment, Hershey said. 

"We don't want people out there suffering," she said. "And while we're working on the larger problem, at least they can find support and community with a common interest right here with NAMI in York."