Washtenaw County Community Mental Health takes SUDs seriously

Washtenaw County CMH staff. Top row L-R: Valerie Bass, Dr. Montgomery Brower, Andrew Grier, Shad Jordan. Bottom row l-R: Shannon Ellis, Margaret Carmalt, Angela Burchard, Jeff Beckley, Melisa Tasker

Mental illnesses are one of  the most common health conditions in the United States. Approximately 21.5 million U.S. adults have co-occurring mental health disorders, the dual existence of a mental illness and a substance use disorder (SUD).When people with a mental illness cannot access treatment, they commonly self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Self-medication can lead to a severe abuse of substances, resulting in SUD.

“It’s common for individuals diagnosed with mental illness to develop substance use disorder because having access to mental health treatment is so difficult,” says Melisa Tasker, a program administrator for Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH). “Mental health symptoms can be intense and can cause a lot of suffering. Unfortunately, substances are widely available, and there are lots of different drugs that can assist in the immediate relief of some of those symptoms. That's why we often see individuals who have co-occurring disorders.”

Mental illness and SUD have common risk factors including genetics and environmental factors such as stress and trauma, which both can impact whole families. Co-occurring disorders often affect adolescents. With youth being susceptible to peer pressure, life stressors, and a difficult social environment, it's understandable why youth with mental health issues might turn to substances for relief. 

“I think we forget that adolescents have adult feelings and adult issues, too,” says Tasker. “Youth experience depression. They experience grief, loss and trauma. Because of their brain development, they are impulsive. They have high risk-seeking behavior but low-risk perception. Everyone's trying to get through the day feeling good, youth included.” 

Melisa Tasker

Help for all, regardless of insurance coverage

With the WCCMH being a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC), it can provide comprehensive mental health and substance use services to all county residents no matter their insurance status. Youth and adult outpatient mental health and SUD services include individual and group therapy, medication management, health services, and other additional services as well as assessment services, treatment planning, case management, crisis care, jail diversion, and reentry services for residents who have been incarcerated. However, WCCMH does not provide residential or detox treatment. 
“We provide, first and foremost, services to individuals who are severely mentally ill. For our clients who have a co-occurring illness, we do offer co-occurring [support] groups,” says Tasker. “We have peer support specialists that work here that have lived experience with both mental illness and substance use. So, we do have internal programming to assist individuals who need a basic outpatient level of care for substance abuse.”

To receive these services, Washtenaw County residents call the WCCMH substance abuse hotline, (734) 544-3050. Uninsured individuals and those with Medicaid looking to receive residential or detox treatment can call the number to be referred to a provider.

“If you call our line, we have designated substance use screeners that have specific training on how to assess someone for their level of care with regard to their substance use disorder,” says Tasker. “From there, they'll get connected with one of our mental health professionals who has specific training. Then, they will provide a referral and an authorization to a provider of the individual's choice.” 

Washtenaw County residents with SUD can call 734- 544-3050 to connect to assessment and referrals for treatment.

The hotline connects Washtenaw County residents with Medicaid or without insurance to substance use disorder to assessment and referrals for treatment. Screenings, referrals, and treatment authorizations are given to callers on the same day their requests are received.

More SUD resources needed

The same steps are taken when youth are involved. 

“Unfortunately, there are not as many resources for youth. There just aren't,” says Tasker. “I think we have one outpatient provider for youth. There aren’t very many options for substance use residential treatment because you can't mix youth and adults in the same residential space. So, it's challenging. Especially if the youth needs withdrawal management or detox, there aren't any options outside of a hospital right now.”

Wait-time until treatment depends on the risk. If someone is using IV drugs or is pregnant, they could receive treatment within 24 to 48 hours.

“Those individuals are what we call priority populations, so the turnaround time is pretty quick," Tasker says. "Most of the time, it’s less than a week.”

Over the next few years, Tasker would like to see even more resources for youth substance use and provide youth with more options for care and treatment. Meanwhile, she encourages youth and adults to call the hotline even if they are unsure of what they need. 

“We will talk you through everything in a very supportive and compassionate way,” she says. “We speak to about 400 individuals a month who are looking for assistance, so we’ve heard it all. We want to give people the services that they need to get back into a place where they are able to live their life the way that they want without shame or judgment.” 

Monique Bedford is an aspiring journalist, currently freelancing for Issue Media Group publications. She graduated from Oakland University in fall of 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in Spanish. Monique has experience in solutions journalism, media design, and hosting a radio show. When she's not writing, you can always find her studying different cultures and languages, reading her favorite newspaper, The New York Times, and spending quality time with her friends and family.

Photos by Doug Coombe.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationLifeWaysMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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