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‘Fiercely dedicated advocacy’ for improved mental health care in Polk

Robert and Leslie Huntley have lived the past 30 years&squo; history of mental health care in the United States.

It has been a history of improvements, with greater scientific and public understanding of the illness, its biological causes and treatments. But it has also been a history of disappointing setbacks, with growing disparities in services and access to care.

For their efforts on behalf of their own daughter, who became ill in 1979 while away at college, and since that time on behalf of all those with mental illness in Western North Carolina, the Huntleys were given the Norman Boyer Award Tuesday by the Polk County Mental Health Advisory Board during a luncheon at LaurelHurst Apartment Homes in Columbus.

&dquo;The Huntleys spent many years and thousands of dollars feeling blamed for (their daughter&squo;s) condition, until they found support in NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness,&dquo; said Barbara Trumble, chairman of the advisory board.

&dquo;(After moving permanently to Western North Carolina in 2003) the Huntleys were relieved when their daughter found a case worker, the support of a peer specialist and a job, thinking they might relax and enjoy retirement,&dquo; Trumble said. &dquo;Unfortunately, a system that had been working for clients was being dismantled.&dquo;

Since then, the Huntleys have gotten involved in influencing the course of mental health reform in North Carolina.

Leslie Huntley has served on the consumer and family advisory committee to Western Highlands, a local management entity serving eight counties for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities. Leslie is now a Family-to-Family teacher/trainer and Western Regional manager for that NAMI program.

Leslie also promoted the creation of a section at the Polk County Public Library with materials intended to educate the public about mental illness.

Robert Huntley joined the Rutherford Polk Mental Health Board, which was later dissolved, and today is a member of the Quality Improvement Committee at Western Highlands, a Family-to-Family teacher and an assistant at state training programs.

He was recently certified as a NAMI support group facilitator and is treasurer of the Polk County Mental Health Advisory Board.

The Huntleys also organized the &dquo;Celebration of Courage,&dquo; a tribute staged with three-foot-high flowers on the lawn across from the Polk County Courthouse. That event raised funds for Thermal Belt Outreach Ministries&squo; provision of mental health crisis services.

It has not been easy to stay optimistic, Leslie Huntley told the dining room full of area leaders and mental health professionals as she accepted the award Tuesday.

&dquo;How can you be positive when one of the best programs in the southeast is being dismantled?&dquo; she asked. &dquo;The present reforms work with private providers, who have the best intentions, but providers must work within &squo;service definitions.&squo; Think HMO,&dquo; Huntley said.

She described a litany of gaps in services and bureaucracies that hinder care. Even those services that are supposed to be provided are rarely available in Polk County.

&dquo;&squo;What about Polk County?&squo; we&squo;re forever screaming,&dquo; she said. The answer she gets, she said, is that Polk is too small.

In any population, Huntley said statistically 10 to 20 percent of the population suffers from mental illness. That would be 2,000 to 4,000 Polk Countians.

She said Polk County needs a 24/7 crisis evaluation center, a psycho-social rehabilitation service, a walk-in clinic and a weekend drop-in center for social interaction. Weekends are lonely times when mental illness becomes more acute, she said.

Local law enforcement officers in Polk County need training in handling mental health crises, Huntley added.

&dquo;Such training protects the police as well as the individual who needs to be transported to care,&dquo; she said.

The Consumer Family Advisory Council to the Western Highlands Network (CFAC), which serves an eight-county region, will hold its regular meeting in Polk County June 23, 6 p.m. at Polk Vocational Services. Leslie Huntley and Donna Tatnall, CFAC representatives from Polk County, said they hope the public will come to that meeting and join in a discussion of mental health needs and services in Polk County. &bsp;

&dquo;The Huntleys&squo; fiercely dedicated advocacy has made a difference here and they are still not ready to retire and relax,&dquo; Trumble said. &dquo;They want Polk County to have a strong advocacy group of consumers and families and hope to see a NAMI chapter here soon.&dquo;

The Norman Boyer Award was named for Dr. Norman Boyer, a psychiatrist who brought the first outpatient programs to Polk, Henderson and Rutherford counties in the 1970s. Past recipients of the award include Cathy Brooks, Eloise Thwing, Gordon Schneider, Rachel Ramsey, Sue Rhodes, Jeff Carter, Stan Bayne and Pat Dockendorf.