Georgia: Servicing mental health

Georgia: Servicing mental health

March 4th, 2009 by Beverly Carroll in Georgia

The year counselor Dr. Denny Whitesel gave free treatment to a local woman with drug addictions was when his dream was born. She really wanted help but couldn't afford clinical care, he said.

"She had been to Chattanooga, but when the money ran out, she came home," said Dr. Whitesel, director of the newly opened Center for Hope, a counseling center in Fort Oglethorpe.

"I told her I would stick with her, whether or not she could pay," he said.

Her case and the many others he knew of who needed help but couldn't afford it kept his dream alive, he said.

Last month, the ribbon was cut on his dream come true. The Center for Hope opened to provide a full range of mental health services and counseling, with fees based on the client's ability to pay.

"For the past decade in North Georgia, I've seen the huge need for counseling services for people who cannot afford them," Dr. Whitesel said.

The new facility is also set apart from competitors by its Christian-based counseling, counselor Cindy Graham said.

"God is the tool," Dr. Graham said. "In the secular world, you had to tiptoe around Christian beliefs. It is a world of difference."

She said mental health counseling often carries a negative stigma, but the healing is invaluable.

Counseling for grief is an example.

"Grief is caused by so many things, not just death or divorce," she said. "Loss of job, or a pet or trust - anything that significantly changes your life."

If left untreated, it becomes baggage carried into the rest of your life where it causes more problems, Dr. Graham said.

The Center for Hope is already on track to outgrow the homey, three-story brick duplex it leases from Hutcheson Medical Center.

Charles Stewart, Hutcheson's president and chief executive officer, said the center is a good fit for the hospital.

"We have definitely seen a need for that service in the community," Mr. Stewart said. "We see it every day in the emergency room: Patients needing counseling or work with a psychologist. It was a need that was not being met."

Until mental health care is on an equal footing with physical health care, communities will need help for those services like the Center for Hope is providing, he said.

Georgia is one of more than 30 states with mental health parity laws, prohibiting discrimination in mental health care coverage, according to About.Com, a mental health Web site.

Insurance policies often have higher co-pays for visits to counselors or psychologists, and set caps on the number of visits.

Discrimination keeps some patients from receiving mental health care, said Tom Ford, head of the Lookout Mountain Community Services, a public mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities agency.

"Someone who has a 50 percent co-pay and a $500 deductible and makes minimum wage or a little more is eliminated from our services, because they are expected to pay the co-pay, but they can't," Dr. Ford said. "(The federal) mental health parity law will help some with that."