Saturday, January 15, 2011

Getting Government Help (Part I)

  Now that funds are so tight, government resources for the mentally ill are getting scarce on the ground. Just because you qualify doesn't mean you'll get them. So here's the beginning of my 3-part series on struggling with bureaucracies:

I have a reputation among my friends for getting the most out of the bureaucracy. Here are some tips gleaned from 20+ years in the mental health system.
First of all, don’t expect fast results. If you need housing next week, start counting up friends’ sofa-beds right now. Approaching the red-tape establishment in desperation puts you at a nasty disadvantage. Public employees often don’t listen well to the urgent or the stressed. They get very huffy about the pace at which they will move.
Expect that big benefits, like Disability, will take up to two years to achieve. Small ones, like assistance paying for your pet’s vaccinations, about six weeks. Government-sponsored benefits are always harder to get. There are more hoops to jump through. Volunteer groups have been formed strictly to help you. Government employees have been trained to safeguard the taxpayers’ money and keep out frauds – so, sadly, you are considered a fraud till proven otherwise.
So that’s the first rule: give it time.
The second is: never miss deadlines or appointments. Even if you are sick, or need an attendant, manage it or reschedule it. If you miss, you can mess up the whole works and they can deny your application on the grounds that you ‘didn’t do your part.’
The other tips follow in no particular order.
Get everything in writing – and keep the paperwork. If it’s an interview or a phone call, be sure to write down any instructions or promises made, along with the date and who told you.
Keep names and phone numbers you find helpful. If you find an employee with a surprisingly good attitude or good information, ask for that person by name next time you call that office. You may even want to call them again about more general info, or a referral. “Hi, Michael. It’s Deborah again. I just wanted to ask you: what department do I call for X situation? Do you have any numbers there?” Contacts are priceless, and might even become friends over the years. But don’t wear out your welcome.
Keep copies of everything YOU send. It is a savvy trick to send things by certified and/or registered mail, so you can prove an office got something on such-and-such a date. If the office completely loses the information you spent six weeks gathering, and you have no copies, you are S.O.L. It does happen. Horrifying but true. So be persnickety about this.
Get friendly with your phone book. When you need something and don’t know where to start, look in the city, county, and federal pages at the front. Think of other names for it if you can’t find it at once. It may be under ‘Human Resources’ instead of ‘Social Services.’ The Internet is great, but not all of us have it, or are good with it. The phone book is free.
Go in person if you can. If you want a service and you can get to the office, get presentable and go there. A friend of mine needed housing. We went together to the county office and received a 25-page handout of places to look and agencies to contact! Nobody’s going to give you that over the phone. You have to be there. And the human touch works wonders.

The above is an excerpt from the book Is There Room For Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies to Coping with Mental Illness, copyright 2010 by Deborah Fruchey. Available on, Kindle, as a Apple iBook, or by request at your bookstore. See the posted link for a short video about the book, or visit