You may have read the article in The Moultrie Observer on July 1, 2011 titled "Georgia Mental Health Ombudsman Appointed." It told only part of the story; there is more. The following is based on three sources: Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2011; Albany Herald, July 1, 2011; and personal involvement with Georgia NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
The mental health ombudsman is responsible for oversight of mental health services in the state, including investigation of abuse, injury, and death in public mental health facilities. It is important to note here that Georgia has been under federal investigation due to gross inadequacies in mental health care and is currently operating under an agreement with the Justice Department. Georgia was without an ombudsman until the position was created by the General Assembly in 2000, but the position was not funded until 2009. At that time, the job was filled by someone with both bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology plus experience as a mental health industry executive. She was passionate about the responsibilities of the job, facing problems head on. She understood that to solve problems, they first have to be defined. Some felt her approach was too transparent, an embarrassment because it revealed just how bad the situation was, so she "resigned due to health problems" less than a year later. Anyone can read between the lines.
Upon Deal's election, numerous contacts were made to the governor's office asking for quick action to fill the position with a highly qualified person who could move Georgia's mental health care in a positive direction. In spite of urgent requests, that position was vacant until June, 2011.
The new ombudsman has a bachelor's degree in speech communication with an emphasis on organizational communication. Her professional experience includes: member of Sonny Perdue's campaign team, Perdue's transition team, Perdue's deputy director of scheduling, director of operations for Perdue's New Georgia, 5th Congressional District Representative on the Nonpublic Postsecondary Commission, and a position with the Department of Community Affairs. She also is involved with the Chastain Horseback Therapeutic Riding program.
This is the mental health ombudsman for the state of Georgia. No academic preparation in mental health. No professional experience in mental health.
Georgia law requires that a committee composed of advocates, psychiatrists, and law enforcement choose from three finalists for the ombudsman job. That did not happen. It also has not been determined if the job description proposed by mental health advocates was implemented in the hiring process. According to The Moultrie Observer, Deal has referred all questions about the appointment to the state's chief operating officer, Bart Gobeil, who would not say if the state had advertised for the position. An Atlanta Legal Aid attorney calls the appointment "really disturbing."
Adding to concerns over her expertise, she was hired at $25,000 over her predecessor's salary. The Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed that she is the "girlfriend" of Deal's chief spokesperson. The Albany Herald adds that the spokesperson recently repaid Deal $98,000 that he owed him for the purchase of property so that the governor could pay down debt he has incurred based on activities of his daughter and son-in-law.
Georgia still rates a D on NAMI's "Report on America's Health Care System for Serious Mental Illness: Grading the States." Their report adds, "Even a D, however, cannot fully convey the horrendous scandal that has scarred the state, with consequences that are still unfolding."
If you think this issue does not affect you because no one in your family has a diagnosis of mental illness, think again. Or call Chief Lang, Sheriff Whittington, emergency room personnel, or anyone who works at night, especially downtown. All of us are affected.
The question on the table is, "Are all of us willing to do something about mental health care? Are you?"
Over 340,000 adults in Georgia and tens of thousands of our children and youth live with serious mental illness. Mental health services in Georgia are critical to the general welfare of their lives and the state as a whole. Georgia's ombudsman should have impeccable credentials to lead the state in repairing a severely broken system.
One small first step in advocacy would be to contact the governor and those representing you in state government about the ombudsman position. And, yes, one person can make a difference.
I welcome questions and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Margaret Mead said it best, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."