Those elegant swaths of twinkling lights draped across Central Florida homes may not bring smiles to everyone’s faces. For some, the countdown to Christmas simply compounds feelings of stress, tension and depression. People who have suffered significant loss, are separated from loved ones or who suffer from mental illness can find the holidays a difficult time of year. According to NAMI, 64 percent of people diagnosed with mental illness say the holidays worsen their symptoms. But in one Orange County community, depression doesn’t exactly spike at Christmas.
“That’s what it’s like in Bithlo all year long,” says Dale Budha. Budha is the Aspire Health Partners Director of Outpatient Therapy Services and lead for the United Way-funded Bithlo Transformation Effort: Expanding the Continuity of Care. It’s a program specifically created to bring mental health services to Bithlo as part of the Bithlo Transformation Effort.
Located in remote east Orange County, Bithlo spans roughly 10 square miles and is home to about 8,200 people. Originally an incorporated city, Bithlo fell into financial despair in the late 1920’s and has remained impoverished ever since. It hasn’t been an actual city for over 50 years. Generations of residents have lived with a foul water supply, no public transportation, no access to health, dental or mental health services, inadequate schools and few jobs. But in recent years, United Global Outreach has spearheaded an effort among community partners to improve life in Bithlo. It turns out that one of Bithlo’s biggest needs is mental health services.
“We encountered families desperate for help from the moment we landed in Bithlo’s Transformation Village approximately two years ago,” says Budha. Initially, Aspire Health Partner’s work was centered on building relationships with Bithlo residents and assessing the community needs. Budha says United Global Outreach and local volunteer church organizations held community spaghetti dinners that drew from 150 to 400 Bithlo residents monthly. Budha would attend regularly, and each time through Bithlo residents’ anxiousness to tell their stories, the organization gained first-hand accounts of the pre-existing untreated mental/emotional health issues facing the community.
“We also discovered that residents in Bithlo were finding their way to our facility by deliberately threatening suicide or homicide, forcing law enforcement to transport to them to *Lakeside Behavioral Healthcare inpatient hospital,” says Budha. She says because access to mental health services, as well as transportation, is such an issue in Bithlo, being Baker Acted became a means for some people to receive treatment. So, Aspire Health Partners began providing services in a tiny, makeshift room in what was becoming Bithlo’s Transformation Village. But limited existing resources, the services were very limited as well. More needed to be done. Then, in January 2014, Budha learned about United Way’s Investing in Results Grants Request for Proposals. One of the requests specifically targeted mental health services for Bithlo.
“The fact that there was a grant targeting the Bithlo community for mental health services was like a dream come true,” says Budha. Writing the grant was a big undertaking for the Director who runs a department of 50 clinicians. She felt the Bithlo resident’s story had to be told in hopes of leveraging resources. The awarded funding allowed Aspire Health Partners to hire and train staff to work in Bithlo, including a full-time therapist to work in Bithlo’s Transformation Village, and two outreach specialists who can make home visits. Aspire Health Partners mental health team in Bithlo has also expanded its partnership with Orange County Public Schools to provide school-based counseling services on five campuses. Since services have become fully available in September 2014, Aspire Health Partners has opened 65 families into services. Twenty of those clients are under the age of 17, the other 45 clients are adults. They paint a telling picture of Bithlo. Among the adult clients:
- 23 out of 45 adults report a history of or current substance use
- 13 report a history of sexual abuse or violence
- 27 out of 45 adults report a history of domestic violence
- 32 out of 45 adults are unemployed or on disability
Open cases don’t necessarily mean on-going treatment. Bithlo residents are still suspicious of the influx of do-gooders now in their community. And sub-standard living conditions don’t provide a lot of motivation for self-improvement. People make appointments for mental health services, but are frequently no-shows.
“We had a woman request an appointment who then was a no-show for five or six appointments, and she finally asked, ‘what happens if I keep skipping my appointments?’ We let her know if it was ok with her, we would keep checking on her and inviting her in. That’s what she was looking for, she wanted to know if we were going to give up on her,” says Budha.
That is what people in Bithlo are used to, society giving up on them. It may take a while for residents to build enough trust to allow themselves to make the most of the services becoming available.
“That is what makes the United Way funding a blessing. It sends a message to Bithlo residents that service providers are here to stay and the community will not be abandoned,” says Budha.
*Lakeside Behavioral Healthcare is now part of Aspire Health Partners.