Pope Francis' calls us to support the neediest and most disenfranchised among us

What an inspiring weekend!  I'm sure many of you were as moved as I was by Pope Francis' calls us to support the neediest and most disenfranchised among us.  We need you now more than ever as we strive each and every day to reach out and support the very people the Pope speaks of. 

As he so eloquently said, "What about you?"  Are you also inspired to do more for those in need.  If so, we ask you to give of your time, talent or treasure to support our work with people experiencing homelessness; with children and families in need; and with older adults isolated in our communities.

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New website helps consumers fight for fair behavioral health coverage

The website Paritytrack.org is drawing attention to a federal law that will help consumers get the behavioral health treatment they need. The law ensures that behavioral health care and medical care are covered equally under qualifying health insurance plans.

"It's really about equity and it's not necessarily about, 'you have to cover these things,' but it's about 'these things have to be equal' and about really viewing behavioral health as equal to all other types of health care," said Luke Butler, a fellow with the Scattergood Foundation, the project's co-creator. 

The website helps consumers identify parity law violations, such as when insurers set higher deductibles or co-pays for behavioral health treatment. One of the most common parity law violations includes long wait times to see a behavioral health provider, said Alyssa Schatz, director of advocacy and policy at the Mental Health Association of Southeast Pennsylvania.

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PA College Students Create Mobile Website to Improve Access to Addiction Resources

The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) today launched a new mobile website aimed at improving access for those in need of drug and alcohol addiction help.

“One in four families struggle with a loved one’s addiction and far too often, they feel helpless and they don’t’ know where to turn,” said DDAP Acting Secretary Gary Tennis. “Having a mobile site will provide them with user-friendly access and connect them to the help they need.”

The new site, available at www.ddap.pa.gov/GetHelpNow, replaces and improves upon the ‘Get Help Now’ resources previously available on the DDAP website. The new site is designed to be mobile device-friendly, and uses mapping features to view treatment resources based on a location, place a phone call and look up driving directions, all with a few simple clicks. It also contains resources for gambling addiction and locations of unused prescription drug drop-off sites.

The ‘Get Help Now’ mobile website also features a new section to help users understand treatment options available through their health insurance provider and county drug and alcohol offices.

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Reporter's Notebook: Counting the homeless in West Philadelphia

Typically when I see homeless people asking for money in the Penn area, I ignore them. But on Wednesday night, I sought them out.

I went down to Congregation Rodelph Shalom at 10 p.m. to meet a group of volunteers counting the homeless in a program called Point-in-Time Count. PIT is federally required in order to have an understanding of the number of homeless people in a given area so that governments can use the data to allocate funds. In 2014, 5,738 homeless people were counted in Philadelphia according to a PIT press release. Despite the high figure, it's not often Penn students stop to acknowledge it. 

Volunteers speak to the homeless in order to get a count of unsheltered people living in Philadelphia. Photo by Pat Zancolli

At 11:30 p.m., I set out with eight other volunteers into the West Philadelphia area. Other groups canvassed different parts of the city. We rode in a van with volunteers Stanley Crawley — a member of Philadelphia Access Center who led the team — Senaka Peter and Kim Wilson. Our first stop was at Fairmount Park on MLK Drive. As we drove, Crawley, a former homeless and mentally ill drug addict who now devotes his time to community outreach, shared his experiences with us. 

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Return to Asylums? Let’s Not!

A recent JAMA opinion piece calling for a return to asylums – not the bad kind, the authors (three Penn bioethicists) insist, but a “safe, modern and humane” kind of asylum – led to a radio debate between co-author Dominic Sisti, associate professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Rogers, chief advocacy officer of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASP) and executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse. The debate, on WHYY’s Voices in the Family, was moderated by the show’s host, Dr. Dan Gottlieb. To listen to the archived program, click here.

Dr. Sisti began by insisting that “we do not want to return to those asylums ... that are now infamous for incarcerating thousands of Americans ... What we were calling for is a rehabilitation of the term ‘asylum’ ... [as] a safe sanctuary where they may be able to heal and reclaim their lives in recovery.” Asked about the reason for the widespread use of chemical restraints, Dr. Sisti responded that it is “a lot easier to maintain control and safety in an overcrowded institution when individuals are chemically controlled. We’re seeing this now in prisons,” where individuals with mental health conditions who are often without access to adequate treatment are “oftentimes given large doses of drugs to keep them both safe and comfortable” (emphasis added).

Throughout the hour-long program, Joseph Rogers was the voice of reason, debunking Dr. Sisti’s arguments. After establishing his credentials – “I’ve been in hospitals; I’ve been in jails; I’ve been homeless; I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder which at times has left me incapacitated” – Rogers talked about his experience in a state hospital: “When I hear the term ‘asylum’ I get my back up because there was no asylum. These places…are not safe places ... You were warehoused.”

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Penn ethicists call for a return of the mental asylum

In a paper that is bound to generate controversy, three University of Pennsylvania bioethicists argue in a medical journal this week for the return of the mental asylum.

March 1945 photo showing Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. Ethicists at Penn are calling for a return to asylums but those that are better than the old ones, meet the latest standards and do a better job than prisons.

The nation, they say, has too few inpatient beds for people with serious mental illnesses. As a result, very sick people are winding up homeless or in prison, nursing homes, and hospital emergency departments.

Dominic Sisti, director of Penn's Scattergood Program for the Applied Ethics of Behavioral Healthcare and lead author of the new paper, used words like appalling and shocking to describe the current state of affairs, which he sees as both morally wrong and financially shortsighted.

His article, titled "Improving Long-term Psychiatric Care, Bring Back the Asylum," appeared in Tuesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. It was coauthored by Andrea Segal and bioethics department chair Ezekiel Emanuel, who recently explored the downside of old age in another attention-grabbing essay, "Why I Hope to Die at 75."

Sisti said their use of the word asylum wasn't meant to be "intentionally provocative."

"We're hoping to reappropriate the term to get back to its original meaning, which is a place of safety, sanctuary, and healing, or at least dignified healing for people who are very sick."
He said he anticipates some "pushback."

Michael Brody provides it. He is president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which has long advocated for community care for people with mental illnesses.

To him, the word asylum is "code for reinstitutionalization of people and segregating them," he said. "Ultimately what happens when these asylums are re-created is, people get lost, ignored, segregated, and forgotten. . . . They have no ticket back into the community."

He thinks government dollars would be better spent on alternatives like Pennsylvania's long-term structured residences (LTSRs). These smaller facilities provide structure and support, but allow closer ties to neighborhoods. Even the most seriously mentally ill usually do not need the level of care provided in hospitals all the time, Brody said.

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