Some believe Connecticut’s skyrocketing mental health needs should be at the top of this year’s legislative agenda.
Calls for mental health help in our state have increased 20% during the pandemic. However, experts say due to budget cuts, there’s not enough people to pick up those calls.
According to the state Department of Mental Health, there are currently more than 800 vacancies in the department.
The state’s largest coalition of mental health advocates, including providers, policy experts, and patients, said a decade of budget cuts and flat funding have taken their toll.
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“We must expand services to save lives. That means ending the rationing of care,” said Puya Gerami, director of Recovery for All.
According to Recovery for All, a statewide coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations, a wave of retirements could add another 500 vacancies to the current staffing shortage. The shortage comes at a time when some say the country’s mental health is in crisis.
Before the pandemic, one in five Americans were affected by a mental health condition. Today, that number has increased to one in three.
“We used to say back pre-pandemic that everybody knew somebody with a mental health condition. Now, we say everybody is living with a mental health condition,” said Thomas Burr of the National Association of Mental Illness CT.
Some point out the impact is disproportionately affecting people of color. Doris Maldonado said she is among the one in four Latines who suffers a mental health disability.
“Diversity, equity, inclusion have become the chicken soup of societal due diligence yet we again gather seeking justice and prevention for our failed mental health system,” said Maldonado.
Those on the front lines of the mental health and addiction crisis say the system is gridlocked.
“Too many end up in crisis, wind up in overcrowded emergency rooms, waiting sometimes days for an in-patient hospital bed to open or worse ending up in jail or in prison,” said Burr.
The National Association of Social Workers Connecticut believes the staffing shortages are pushing the state’s public health system to the brink.
“Mental health is a person-powered field. It’s not like grocery store where you can just add some self-service checkouts,” added the group’s Executive Director Stephen Wanczyk-Karp.
Disruptions to school and family life during the pandemic have put children at the center of this crisis.
“Currently we have kids that are in the emergency room, we have units that are closed, we have beds that are unavailable, and not used simply because we haven’t taken enough steps to hire enough staff,” said Darnel Ford, a children’s services worker.
Thursday, the state’s largest mental health coalition sent a letter to the governor and lawmakers with a roadmap to turn the tide. Among its recommendations was a pilot program to place licensed social workers in pediatric practices. It also wants the state to require every school have a social worker and expand school-based mental health centers.
The group is also urging Connecticut to expand access to licensed social workers to children on the state’s Medicaid program, called HUSKY. It says the state’s current prescription isn’t a cure.
“Welcome 2022, and our solutions remain static and hammered hard on increasing hospital beds rather than preventive care integrated into school districts,” said Maldonado.
Recovery For All is asking the governor to budget enough money to not only restore but expand the mental health department.
It says it’s providing the state with a road map to turn the tide, including filling all 800 vacancies and providing an additional $67-million in funding for various programs and services.
NBC Connecticut reached out to the Governor’s office for comment but did not hear back.
Coalition members say investment in mental health services is more critical than ever, especially for children who are vulnerable and in crisis.
“This is a year where we have to actually make a commitment to do it,” said Kathy Flaherty of the CT Legal Rights Project.