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CLAUDETTE HARDEN & OLINDA RICARD-HODGE: It’s a new year for mental health
Claudette Harden and Olinda Ricard-Hodge
Claudette Harden and Olinda Ricard-Hodge

Most of us experienced the holidays during the winter months as one long continuous celebration, starting with Thanksgiving and topping off with New Year’s Day. We gathered with loved ones, dressed up, shared tasty food, and enjoyed festive holiday events.

Unfortunately, thousands of families were without their loved ones due to mental health or substance use challenges, incarceration, care in behavioral health facilities, or loss by suicide.

COVID-19 continues to expose significant disparities in healthcare and emphasizes the urgency of addressing the methods utilized to respond to mental health and substance use crises. The National Institute on Mental Health reports that suicide was the twelfth leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, claiming the life of 45,900 people. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics 2020 data indicates a 30% increase in overdose deaths, claiming the life of 91,000 people.

An estimated three-quarters of those who enter jail each year with a severe mental illness have a co-occurring substance use disorder. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately two-thirds of female and a third of male inmates report being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. In an effort to reduce the use of police in addressing mental and substance use crises, 9-8-8 was launched nationally in 2022.  

Most families bear the brunt of the consequences of their loved one’s mental health or substance use issues: Fees for legal counsel, providing funds for commissary and medical bills for services not covered by insurance, and visitation during incarceration are a drain on family finances. Family members experience hopelessness, helplessness, and guilt from not being able to communicate with their loved ones regularly or having been able to protect loved ones from their own behaviors. 

The NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Rockdale & Newton Chapter’s outgoing and incoming Chairperson Claudette Harden and Olinda Ricard-Hodge, respectively, have lived experiences of being advocates for their sons whose untreated mental illness contributed to their arrest and incarceration. They’ve experienced the additional burden of not knowing how their family member was being treated while detained or hospitalized: whether they are safe and being provided the proper medical care that they need.

The families of those with mental health issues continue to engage with our local, state and federal legislators about the importance of allocating more funding to improve mental health facilities and expand resources in our healthcare systems and communities.

In 2022 Georgia lawmakers passed the Mental Health Parity Act (HB 1013) to ensure that insurance plans provide coverage for mental health and substance use is comparable to medical coverage. As well as establishing Psychiatric Advanced Directives (HB 752) and developing co-responder teams (SB 403), which provide for peace officers and mental health professionals to respond to mental health and substance use crises jointly.

Rockdale and Newton counties are home to numerous local agencies working together to provide services, connections to resources, encouragement, and support to individuals and families impacted by mental health and substance use challenges. Agencies like the Newton County Family Connection, Newton County Drug-Free Community Coalition, Rockdale County Drug-Free Coalition, Newton-Rockdale Suicide Prevention Coalition, View Point Health, Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families, the Community Resource Network, Grit and Grace Recovery Community Organization, Rockdale County Stepping Up Initiative, Give Life a Chance, Cat10Entertainment and NAMI Rockdale & Newton host town hall meetings, community resource fairs, educational events, support groups and more.

The NAMI Rockdale & Newton Chapter serves residents across our counties with free mental health support, online groups, resources, education, and opportunities to become an advocate with the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.

Our ability to improve lives and make advancements in addressing mental health and substance use challenges increases when we continue to bring awareness to the issues by sharing our stories. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., mental health advocates from across the state will participate in Mental Health Day at the Capitol. They will meet with our legislators to advocate for early intervention & prevention, strong parity protections, enhancing the mental health workforce, decriminalizing mental health, improving emergency crisis response, affordable housing for people living with mental illness, and other topics.

To learn more about Mental Health Day at the Capitol, NAMI Rockdale & Newton, our monthly support groups, or community resources, visit us online at, email us at or call 470-665-6808. 

If in crisis, please call 988 or the Georgia Crisis & Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. You can also text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7, confidential, free crisis counseling. If you call 911, please ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)/Mental Health trained Officer.

Claudette Harden is the past chairperson and Olinda Ricard-Hodge is the current chairperson of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Rockdale & Newton Chapter.