During his tenure as executive director of the Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County, Rick Huber understood all too well the significant disadvantage he and other counselors seeking to help those struggling with personal demons faced on a daily basis. It is a large part of the reason why the job he held for 13 years consumed and defined him.
“The drug dealers have a better outreach than any place I’ve ever seen … They’re on call 24-7,” he said this week in a phone interview. “You can call a drug dealer at 2 o’clock in the morning, not have money, but they’ll know when you get your check and they’ll bring the drugs to your house. Call a mental health clinic or a drug and alcohol place between 9 and 4 and they’ll give you an appointment a month out.”
It is an unfortunate reality that can be the difference in recovery or relapse for an individual in need of immediate help. Huber, as many who know him will attest, still maintains a passion for a vocation that meant so much to him.
In January 2018, community members and numerous county officials celebrated his accomplishments and values at a gathering to mark his retirement from the agency. Since his departure, which came after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Huber remains engaged with the major issues facing the cities and small towns in our region. In fact, with the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changing the lives of many throughout the nation, he acknowledges there are greater concerns today than ever before.
Last week, Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel discussed a continued effort to educate the public about mental health, provide support for those with mental illness, their families, their providers and their clinicians as well as combat a stigma that still exists today. He has proclaimed May as Mental Health Awareness Month.
“Struggles exist to varying degrees in our daily lives,” Wendel said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these and created new ones. It is important as a county that we are all properly supported to face these struggles, and we are fortunate to have tools available locally to do so.”
Huber, however, is not sure enough is being done. He pointed to a major loss in the Success Academy, which helped young people who came from unstable homes. The program was a victim of a number of budget cuts by the Jamestown Public Schools last year.
“How much is that going to cost the county down the road with kids not getting the help they need?” Huber questioned.
Going by the numbers alone, there is no question that youth in our region are facing tough times. According to the state Education Department, 58% of the more than 17,000 children who attend schools in Chautauqua County are economically disadvantaged. This problem is not limited to just the cities of Dunkirk and Jamestown, it is also prevalent in the rural districts. Of the 134 students attending the elementary level to grade six at Ripley, 84 — or 68% are disadvantaged.
That poverty factor, Huber believes, also impacts how well our youth learn, especially those who choose to attend schools. Attendance problems, even before the pandemic, were well documented as the county graduation rate hovers around 84%.
“We’ve got to think outside the box,” he said with some urgency.
In May, the Chautauqua County Health Department offered a bleak update regarding one of the greatest health issues facing the nation today: the use of opioids. Data indicated the county experienced a 54% increase in non-fatal overdoses from 2019 to 2020. Over the same time frame, overdose fatalities rose 18%, from 33 in 2019 to 39 in 2020.
To Huber, there is a person and family behind each number who may have fallen through the cracks. He remembers the 3 and 4 o’clock early morning phone calls he received. Some of those patients after receiving treatment found success, while for others the battle rages.
His greatest wish is for the current group of non-profit agencies — and those dedicated to health care — to have a greater focus on those needing assistance. “Everyone tries to stay in their own lane now and all these businesses, non-profits … it’s become about money and contracts, not advocacy and results,” he said. “That’s huge to me.”
While there is immediate help for those in the south county through Jones Memorial Health Center, there is a void in the north county with the closing of Lakeshore Hospital in Irving. Last month, the city of Dunkirk announced it was working on having a flycar respond to those requiring help. The effort, however, remains in the early stages.
Additionally, the county is currently seeking someone to run its community mental hygiene services department. Its former director, Pat Brinkman, retired last month.
As for Huber, despite his ailment, he still wants to have a voice and contribute to an ongoing battle that faces so many of our neighbors and community members. That comes with a delicate balance.
“We need to approach the people most affected by this. County (departments) and non-profits are not working with people who have a foot in both worlds,” he said. “They are (the ones) who can talk to the people who are actually addicted, the drug dealers and work with the police at the same time to keep those who want to get well safe.”
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 366-3000, ext. 253.