Editor’s note: this piece is based upon a template provided to Mr. Walter by the National Council and portions of it have appeared in other publications. It has been localized for use in Connecticut.
One in four of us. That’s the number of Americans who will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetimes. Yet, for decades, funding for mental health treatment has steadily declined. It’s time to change that, and legislation pending in Congress would do so.
In my 32 years in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed devastating cuts in mental health budgets. Nationally, public mental health programs were cut by $4.35 billion from 2009-2012, and fewer than half of Americans who live with mental illness are getting any treatment at all.
Here in Connecticut the situation is dire. The bi-annual budget passed by the Connecticut General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Dannel Malloy includes significant reductions in the mental health and substance grant accounts under the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), totaling $25 million over the next two years. Government funded mental health centers are the bedrock of our nation’s mental healthcare system. Repeated funding cuts undermine our ability to provide the help needed so desperately by so many.
If enacted, the Excellence in Mental Health Act would go a long way toward restoring Medicaid funding for community mental health centers nationwide, including our programs aimed at prevention, intervention, psychiatric evaluation, crisis evaluation and stabilization and out-patient mental health services. These programs provide lifelines for people struggling with serious anxiety, acute episodes of depression and those contemplating suicide. Rushford also provides acute care and evaluation (detox), residential addiction treatment, partial hospital programs and family support for those with addictions to drugs and alcohol.
The Excellence Act would ensure that community behavioral health centers cover a broad range of mental health and addiction services: 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs, and expanded support for the often beleaguered families of people with mental health issues. The Act would provide care for as many as 1.5 million Americans living with mental illness, including an estimated 200,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with behavioral health needs.
In the wake of recent tragedies, polls find that eight in 10 Americans support spending more money on mental health programs. Sadly, that support does not translate into certain passage of the Excellence Act. The legislation was to be considered as part of the gun control package debated in Congress earlier this year. Ultimately, the gun legislation proved too controversial. When it was defeated, the Excellence Act was set aside. Fortunately, the bill’s bipartisan sponsors promise to bring it up again later this year.
Those living with mental illness can be helped. Each and every day, programs like ours help people address their illnesses and change their lives. Take, for example, 19-year-old Tim Harmon of Guilford. Two years ago, he nearly died from a combination of K2 (synthetic marijuana), cough syrup and, most significantly, morphine. Upon his release from a local acute care hospital, he entered Rushford at Stonegate, the state’s premier facility for treating substance use in adolescent males. Today, he continues on his recovery journey, his parents and family grateful for the availability of a local, family-centered rehab center geared to meet Tim’s needs.
But we can’t provide that help without adequate funding. Providing community-based mental health services is a good investment. When people receive timely and effective treatment, it reduces expensive ER visits and hospitalizations. Law enforcement officials recognize the potential savings as well, having seen their resources increasingly diverted to address unmet mental health needs.
We are greatly encouraged by the support given the act by Senate co-sponsors Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, and House co-sponsors Congressman Joe Courtney and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, and hope you will tell them how much you appreciate that support. Fully funding mental health programs is a moral and social issue affecting each of us. Please urge Representatives John Larson, Rosa DeLauro and Jim Himes to support this bill.
Jeffrey Walter is the President and CEO of Rushford, a Hartford HealthCare partner, based in Meriden. He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Council for Behavioral Health.