LAFAYETTE, La. (AL) – Louisiana is one of the highest states in the nation for the number of documented cases of mental illness. Louisiana is also known as one of the states with the lowest access to care.

One in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year. And according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, out of Louisiana’s approximately 4.4 million residents, close to 183,000 adults live with serious mental illness with about 49,000 children living with serious mental health conditions.

As a retired school nurse, Catherine Wattigny is all too familiar with these sobering statistics. Being fully aware of the problems that exist locally in the area of mental health, she took it upon herself to start speaking with people who had a real concern about how mental illness impacts so many in the community.

With the help of her husband, Assistant District Attorney Dean Wattigny, she began making connections both personal and professional to find other like-minded individuals aware of the immense problems the community faces in regard to mental illness.

Thus began the Iberia Mental Health Initiative, which describes itself as a coalition of concerned citizens dedicated to identifying and addressing the mental health needs in the area.

“We can’t solve the problem, but we can begin to see what could be done to relieve the problems and the impact it has in our community,” says Wattigny. “We have collected a coalition to come together and look at what our particular problems and needs are in the area of mental health in our community and what we can do to try and meet some of those needs.”

While the IMHI is still in its infancy–having only begun last October– it has already enlisted professional counselors, physicians, clergy, social workers, law enforcement and others into its ranks.

One of the initiative’s primary goals is educating the public on what defines mental illness as many are unaware of what exactly constitutes mental illness.

“We want to educate the community and reduce the stigma in the area of mental health,” says Wattigny.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, NAMI, a mental illness is defined as a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.

NAMI also states that a mental health condition isn’t the result of one event as research suggests. Multiple, interlinking causes like genetics, environment and lifestyle combine to influence whether someone develops a mental health condition.

“One of the big things that we’re trying to do is to provide resources for individuals in the community that maybe are looking for mental health services, but don’t know where to go or who to reach out to,” says Dr. David Landry, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in both New Iberia and Lafayette.

“We’re trying to come up with a system to educate the public on mental health, but also to really try and give them the resources that they may need in order to get assistance or help or where to go to for themselves or for family members,” adds Landry.

Another move the initiative has in mind is to improve communications between mental health professionals and other physicians in the area to determine how to address local mental health problems and improve the situation in general.

One of the early members of IMHI is Phyllis Dabineaux, a licensed clinical social worker with an after hours private practice in downtown New Iberia. Dabineaux also worked for several years at New Iberia Mental Health, which is where she first met Wattigny during her time as a school nurse when two would often confer patients and students.

“There is so much of a demand, so much of a need, in the mental health field especially with children and families,” says Dabineaux. “I think everyone in the community knows of someone that has been touched by mental health.”

Mental illness stems from many causes including biological, genetic, psychological and even environmental issues and can also result from early losses, emotional tragedy, physical and sexual abuse, poor nutrition, dysfunctional family life and more.

“There’s just so many causes and unfortunately the solutions and availability of resources are not always out there,” says Dabineaux. “So many of our families today are faced with many issues including low income and substance abuse and they don’t know where to start.”

One of the biggest obstacles the initiatives identifies with regard to individuals seeking help for mental illness is access to care. Louisiana’s public mental health system provides services to only 17 percent of adults who live with serious mental illnesses in the state.

For children, 50 percent of mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75 percent of mental health conditions develop by age 24. Also, the normal personality and behavior changes of adolescence may mimic or mask symptoms of a mental health condition.

According to Dr. Henry Eikel, a pediatrician who has been practicing in New Iberia since 2003 and just recently joined IMHI, one of the biggest problems he witnesses for children with mental illness and their families is getting the proper insurance coverage.

“Sometimes it’s hard and it can be delayed as it takes months to get them in to see somebody,” says Eikel. “That’s a long time if a child’s having issues.”

Eikel says the majority of children in the Iberia Parish area are on medication through the Bayou Health Plans that makes it difficult for them to find coverage.

“I have more problems with kids who are on Medicaid trying to get mental health coverage,” says Eikel. “It’s the same for all, but it’s a little bit easier when they have a private insurance like Blue Cross or Aetna or something like that to be able to get somebody in.”

According to Eikel, there still needs to be more coverage available for mental health as well as more mental health professionals trained to deal specifically with children.

“I have kids who are 4, 5 and 6 who really have issues and there’s not that many, be it private or Medicaid, who are just willing to take them because they don’t know what to do with them,” says Eikel. “They are not experienced enough or they aren’t comfortable with them.”

An increase in Medicaid coverage and more specialized mental health providers seems like a step in the right direction, but with the state’s current fiscal woes seeking better reimbursements for mental health issues might be a more realistic starting point to improving access.

“Improved access would help, but with the state of the economy, I can’t see the state coming up with the extra money to help with reimbursement,” says Eikel. “That’s why a lot of subspecialists won’t take Medicaid, because it won’t reimburse well enough to sometimes even cover their costs.”

Louisiana spent just $61 per capita on mental health agency services in 2006 or $257.3 million, which was just 1.2 percent of total state spending that year. Also in 2006, 30 percent of Louisiana state mental health agency spending was on community mental health services; 56 percent was spent on state hospital care. Nationally, an average of 70 percent is spent on community mental health services and 28 percent on state hospital care.

“I think any community, not just New Iberia, but the state as a whole could definitely use more mental health resources,” says Dabineaux. “The funding has been cut through the years. There’s just a whole lot of need out there and there’s just not enough dollars to cover what people need.”

“There are barriers to accessing mental health assistance. There’s income barriers. There’s a lack of knowledge of services. There’s the stigma involved,” says Wattigny. “So there’s a lot of different ways that we can work to address those different needs.”

Those interested in working with or receiving help from the Iberia Mental Health Initiative are encouraged to contact them at 337-369-3906 or finding them Facebook by searching Iberia Mental Health Initiative.

“I think that people are willing to give it their time and get involved to try and improve what’s out there just says a lot about how great our community is,” says Dabineaux. “I think it’s a reflection on the people in this area that they really care. It’s so rewarding to know that you were able to help someone live a better life and that’s what an improvement in the mental health system will do for people.”

[This article was originally published in the July 2016 edition of Acadiana Lifestyle and appeared on]