Many people probably wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable telling their friends about a recently diagnosed heart condition.

Substitute the heart condition — or a host of other physical ailments — for a mental illness, though, and most people probably would be much more hesitant to talk openly about their diagnosis, said the Rev. Raymond A. Jetson, a former state representative committed to raising awareness about the need to boost treatment for mentally ill people in the Baton Rouge area.

Jetson’s comments about the social stigma associated with many mental illnesses came Thursday during a discussion about how best to improve treatment for mentally ill people in the Baton Rouge area. The discussion was held at the Drusilla Seafood Restaurant by a group called Leaders With Vision, which regularly hosts panel discussions about issues facing the Baton Rouge community.

“People think it’s their fault they have a mental illness,” said Steve Aguillard, director of clinical services for the Capital Area Human Services District, a mostly state-funded organization that operates a network of community mental health and substance abuse treatment centers in a seven-parish region surrounding the state’s capital. Aguillard said a growing body of research suggests genetics influence who suffers from mental illness, meaning the illness may often arise in part through no fault of one’s own.

Members of the panel at the event, including Jetson and Aguillard, answered questions from about a dozen people who attended the luncheon. Among the issues discussed were the lack of long-term psychiatric care facilities available to those with a mental illness, a side-effect of America’s so-called “deinstitutionalization” efforts and relatively recent closures of several state mental hospitals.

Dr. Beau Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish coroner, was among the panelists at the event. An outspoken advocate for improving treatment options for mentally ill people and a member of a committee formed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to propose plans for a local mental health facility, Clark said one idea recently floated by the committee included long-term treatment options at the proposed facility.

The committee, which on Thursday held the last of three meetings to discuss plans for a mental health “restoration center,” modeled in part after a similar facility in San Antonio, Texas, will eventually share its ideas with local leaders looking to improve mental health treatment options in the Capital City area.

Aguillard said mental health workers want to avoid institutionalizing patients at all costs. And for most people, it’s probably not necessary. But the treatment option needs to be there for people who need it, he said.

And while institutionalization would represent the more expensive end of mental health treatment, April Foreman, the suicide prevention coordinator at Baton Rouge’s Veteran Affairs clinic, said most people will respond better to cheaper alternatives.

“It turns out that the better care is usually less expensive,” Foreman said.

Treating mental illnesses on the front end, as opposed to once someone ends up in a crisis situation or in jail, also leads to taxpayer savings, Foreman said.

It’s a point that’s been driven home by officials from cities in San Antonio and Lafayette where there have been pushes to divert non-violent mentally ill people away from jails and into treatment centers. Baton Rouge leaders have said they want to do the same.

BRAF is driving a community discussion about mental illness following the failure of Mayor-President Kip Holden’s public safety tax proposal that included funding to build a mental health facility. A separate tax proposal also would have funded the facility.

The next speaking event held by BRAF in a series of events meant to raise awareness about the need to improve the treatment options available to those with mental illness will be held Thursday, March 26, at the parish’s main library on Goodwood Boulevard. It will begin at 6 p.m., and the guest speaker will be Steven Leifman, a judge from Miami, Florida, who for years has advocated for improved treatment for mentally ill people.

The event is free and open to the public.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.