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Jan-10-2008 05:35printcomments

DHS Seeks to Halt Early Deaths of People With Mental Illness

This "wellness initiative" won praise during a recent DHS meeting of consumers of mental health services.

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(SALEM, Ore.) - Many Oregonians with serious mental illnesses are dying prematurely because of disease, poor access to medical care and related problems, and the Oregon Department of Human Services has launched a statewide "wellness" initiative to turn things around.

Those with serious mental illness are dying an average 25 years earlier than the general population, often due to heart disease, diabetes and problems related to side effects of medications, smoking, obesity and lack of holistic medical care, according to research by a national mental health council.

"We've got to reduce the death rate in Oregon and start working on it immediately," said Bob Nikkel, DHS assistant director for addictions and mental health. "These statistics are unacceptable and we must work in partnership with the people whose lives are most at risk to do something about it."

Under Nikkel's guidance the agency has begun forming a peer-driven task force to develop health and lifestyle measures and resources to increase the lifespan of those affected by mental illness. The task force will include persons with mental illness, their families, advocates, physicians, mental health professionals, physical fitness experts and others.

"This is a grassroots, from the bottom up wellness initiative," Nikkel said. "We in the mental health profession don't know enough and shouldn't try to impose this on consumers. They can and will take the lead role in developing -- and following -- the program."

Nikkel appointed Patricia Davis-Salyer, M.Ed., a DHS training and development specialist, and David Romprey, a mental health advocate, to spearhead the campaign.

Davis-Salyer said the work of the task force will be "swift and focused, getting the committee's work out of the discussion stage and into action. Fifty-one percent of the committee members will be persons in recovery."

"We've got to cut the mortality rates and increase access to wellness services," she explained. "People with severe and persistent mental illness, (one out of five persons in the U.S., according to national studies) are members of our community... you, your neighbor, your family member, your coworker. This is a public health epidemic and we need to work together to solve the problem. It is time to act!"

Davis-Salyer encouraged people to begin their own wellness programs immediately.

"Smoke less, take a walk, drink more water, talk to your doctor about the side effects of medications and alternatives," she said. "Consider other things such as yoga, meditation and relaxation response techniques. Each person can choose recovery and wellness one step or leap at a time."

The wellness initiative won praise during a recent DHS meeting of consumers of mental health services.

"It will be up to us to create a wellness culture," said one attendee. "For some of us, wellness means a paradigm shift and new expectations. We need to make good choices for ourselves."

Another attendee explained the wellness initiative in grassroots terms: "We've got to boil it down to something we can do something about."

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