Davis spent her career caring for the mentally ill

This was in Today’s newspaper:

ENGLEWOOD – LoAnn Davis spent a good part of her nursing career caring for the mentally ill and believes those suffering from psychological disorders need medical care and nurturing, but not enabling.

"This is not a game they’re playing," said Davis, 76. "Anyone who puts down psychiatric care needs their head examined."

Unfortunately, people will often sooner admit to serving prison time for a serious crime, she said, than admit that they or their family members suffer from a mental disorder.

"It’s fear — ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ — and I said that when I was 26 years old and had no experience with life at all," she said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of U.S. residents 18 and older — about one in four adults and more than 57 million people — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

"People need to be more aware of (psychiatric care) and respect it, and not be fearful of it," Davis said.

Davis, a native Floridian born in Sarasota, started in nursing in the 1960s after her first husband — a commercial fisherman she described as "an ugly man"– was convicted of being a major smuggler of marijuana into Cortez. Having played no part in her husband’s illicit activities, she needed a way out and be able to support her four children. Nursing gave her that way out.

Thanks to a scholarship from the Lions Club, Davis studied to be an LPN and graduated in 1963. She was first hired to work at a psychiatric unit in Sarasota.

"I guess I acted like I walked on the earth instead of on a cloud," she said.

Davis, who only weighed 103 pounds at the time, ruptured three discs in her back trying to get an unruly patient, a much larger woman, into a bed. She kept on working until she said she was pressured to quit after being injured. She has since worked at medical facilities in Sarasota, Manatee, Venice and even Port Charlotte, back when what is now Peace River Regional Medical Center was run by nuns.

"A woman alone with children jumps around because you have to pay the light bills and grocery bills," Davis said. Along the way, she picked up additional education, diverse nursing experience, certifications and eventually became an RN in 1972. She migrated back to caring for psychiatric patients at the Florida Mental Health Institute, associated with the University of South Florida, and other psychiatric hospital units in the early 1980s. She then worked with prisoners suffering from psychological disorders in Hillsborough County.

"Up there, they have 2,000 inmates and a third of them are psychiatric patients," Davis said. "Some of the same patients in psychiatric units and the (veterans hospitals) were prisoners. They do need to be in hospitals."

During her career, Davis said she witnessed the rapid evolution of mental health care. She also talked about how as insurance and other funding sources shrank many of the care facilities closed.

From her experience, Davis believes small group homes integrated within the larger community are a good way to care for and treat the mentally ill. Medications have improved over the years, but the important thing is to help those with psychological disorders learn that remaining on their medications will benefit them. Cognitive behavioral treatments included teaching the patient responsibilities for themselves, she said.

"Number one, they don’t like how (medications) make them feel," she said. "But, number two, they don’t like it because society is so uneducated. Socially, you are put down."

That’s true, said Pascale Iliou with the Charlotte County chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). The local NAMI chapter meets every second Monday of the month at the Family Services Center, 21450 Gibraltar Drive in Port Charlotte.

"Because of the stigma, no one wants to be sentenced with the label," Iliou said. Families, she said, can often feel isolated, even though mental illness has biological causes such as other ailments and diseases.

Medications have improved, but they are often expensive and fail to be covered by insurance companies, Davis noted. Even with Medicaid, Iliou said, it is sometimes a struggle to keep the drugs approved for payments. The recession has added pressures and stresses on people while existing services are being cut.

NAMI spokesman Bob Carolla said the move was made to de-institutionalize those with mental disorders and offer more community-based treatments and services.

"The implied promise was that the funding, particularly from the states, would go into services," Carolla said. "But that hasn’t happened."

According to a NAMI study, Florida earned a C in 2006 for its services to those suffering from mental disorders, but that grade slipped to D in 2009. The NAMI study described Floridians with mental disorders as people facing an "uphill battle" to get the treatments and services they need.

"Florida faces tough choices in the coming years," the report concluded. "Although the state Supreme Court and the criminal justice community are standing up for people with serious mental illnesses, (the Department of Children and Families) and the Agency for Health Care Administration are not. Instead of adding more prisons and jails, comprehensive mental health services are urgently needed."

For more information about the Charlotte County NAMI chapter, call 941-268-8033 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting   941-268-8033 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. A Sarasota County NAMI chapter can be reached at 941-957-3626 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting   941-957-3626 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. In Englewood, an unaffiliated support group can be reached at 941-475-2000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting   941-475-2000 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

E-mail: reilly@sun-herald.com

By STEVE REILLY

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