A businessman who can’t stop popping pills, an old woman who calls a park bench her home and a veteran who never leaves her home are all fighting their own battles, one might say. However, State Sen. John Brooks, of Seaford, is looking to prove how mental health is the one umbrella under which a variety of issues must be addressed.
When Brooks has greeted residents of the areas he represents — Seaford, Wantagh, Bellmore, Merrick, Baldwin and Freeport — they all share their concerns about the county’s opioid epidemic, veterans’ affairs and homelessness, among other issues, he said. He began setting up task forces to tackle each issue, and soon, he said, he noticed that mental health problems were common to all of them, yet not being talked about.
“Most of these problems are treatable in one way or another,” Brooks said last week. “But mental health is still spoken about in whispers.”
In March, Brooks created the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities work group, and on Dec. 8, he will join the National Alliance of Mental Illness to host an educational forum at the Brookside School in North Merrick.
According to Brooks, the most ambitious task force he has created aims to, among other endeavors, attack the opioid epidemic. He said that he has heard parents say that their children were isolated in some way and resorted to drugs before their addiction took hold. “We really need to look at addiction as a mental illness, as opposed to a crime,” he added.
Brooks said the same of homelessness, adding that many people who are kicked out of their homes are too trapped inside their minds to act. Veterans and victims of trauma, Brooks added, also have underlying mental issues that could otherwise go unnoticed.
“We must train teachers, religious figures and each other to see the warning signs of mental illness,” he said.
Next week’s forum will also address developmental disabilities. At the state level, Brooks said, “There’s a lot being done, but more has to be done.”
When he took office in January, Brooks said, he was surprised to see that the state’s group homes were underfunded and understaffed. He advocated for increases in funding and higher salaries for employees.
Some residents, however, had already found alternate solutions for their adult children with disabilities. Karen’s Hope is a nonprofit, independent-living house that opened on Kenora Place in Seaford on May 20, 2016, thanks to the efforts of Karen Siler, 54, of Seaford.
“Unfortunately, everyone knows somebody with autism or some sort of disability,” Siler told the Herald after she opened the house, adding, “I don’t know how many people truly understand what the adult world looks like for them. Where are they going? What do their futures look like?”
Siler’s autistic son Ryan, 26, and Dillon McManus, a 27-year-old who is also autistic, both live in the house with Laura Cook, 65, a close friend of Siler’s who takes care of the two young men.
Brooks said that he admires the work Siler does with Karen’s Hope, and intends to help his constituents understand how to care for people who live with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses. “Are we going to solve every problem? No, but we’re going to help as much as we can,” he said.
The Brookside School forum is scheduled for 7 p.m.