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The other side of Los Alamos

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Resources for mentally ill patients aren’t always utilized

By Carol A. Clark

Los Alamos is a wealthy town filled with highly educated people, but that does not spare it from a representative share of mentally distressed residents, supporting the notion that there is a fine line between genius and insanity.

Local police reports are loaded with domestic disputes, assaults upon peace officers and instances of more bizarre behaviors.

Affected individuals are attended to through local mental health systems, law enforcement and church communities as warranted.

“It takes a whole community to try to surround a person in need in a healthy and supportive way,” said Rev. Fr. Colin Kelly of Trinity on the Hill Church.

Kelly said the first step is to determine which individual community the person belongs to whether it’s the senior center, a particular church or a specific family. The second step is to help draw the person into that community in a healthy, healing way.

“We have wonderful organizations in this town. I’ve been a member of Kiwanis for many years and they do a good job of keeping in touch with members going through issues and referring them for help,” Kelly said. “Los Alamos Visiting Nurses Association provides a wonderful nursing ministry and Sombrillo and Aspen Ridge provide tremendous care for those beyond family care.”   

Law enforcement typically determines whether a person with mental or emotional issues, who has come to its attention, should enter the mental health system or the criminal justice system.

Police have the power and authority to protect the safety and welfare of the community. They also have a “parens patriae” obligation, which is the doctrine that grants the inherent power and authority of the state to protect persons who are legally unable to act on their own behalf.

“At times community members ask us why we don’t just arrest someone they believe is acting oddly but we are governed by laws and policies,” Det. Shari Mills said.  “A person has to be suspected of committing a crime before we can arrest them. Also, specific procedures must be followed in order to involve Adult Protective Services or similar agencies.”

Police in all states have the power to transport persons for psychiatric evaluation and treatment when there is probable cause to think that they are a danger to themselves or to others because of their mental condition.

Law enforcement is often the first to be called to deal with persons with mental health emergencies. Police officers are trained to recognize signs of mental illness and to access mental health resources for those community members in need.

The Los Alamos Family Council is a major local resource with offices at 1505 15th St., Suite C. LAFC offers personal counseling, community programs, crisis intervention, the youth activity center and a community health agency. Programs include services for anxiety, depression, retirement, loss and grief, child abuse, counseling and therapy, substance abuse program, medication management and psychosocial rehabilitation.

“We certainly do have people who are chronically mentally ill in this town. Some are on medication and working and doing well and others aren’t doing well or don’t recognize the problem and aren’t taking medication,”said LAFC Counseling Center Program Director Cheryl Pongratz. “Also, our community is aging and with that we have a certain amount of dementia. We do have a lot of resources available including about 25 different therapists, mostly part time and many mental health and substance abuse services pretty much for anybody no matter whether they have insurance.”

Los Alamos County recently released a request for proposals for a social services contract to provide assistance to people just needing help with every day living, which LAFC is responding to.

“It’s difficult growing old and for people living alone who have to make decisions, understanding Medicare and their secondary insurances can be overwhelming. Aging is difficult and people say aging is not for wimps,” Pongratz said. “We have a fantastic senior center that has programs that can make life more meaningful. Also, Self Help, Inc. can help with certain emergency financial needs.”

Pongratz explained the lack of a psychiatrist is one of the community’s biggest challenges. Dr. Greg Baca is setting up a practice, she said, and will begin seeing patients soon.

LAFC operates a 24/7 crisis line at 662-4422. To seek advice regarding a neighbor or colleague exhibiting bizarre behavior, access www.lafamilycouncil.com or call LAFC at 662-3264.