by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director
We live in dangerous times.
That’s the message NAMI has delivered this month in a special report, State Mental Health Cuts: a National Crisis, which has received widespread media attention.
The report provides the first comprehensive look at how deep states have been cutting mental health budgets, based on tedious examination of public documents. For tens of thousands of people, the safety net for people living with mental illness is being shredded.
Two thirds of states have made cuts in mental health care in the last three years, even as need has increased because of the nation's economic distress and troops returning home from war. Nineteen states managed to increase mental health during the same period, but for 12 of them, increases totaled only four percent or less.
In all states, the budget squeeze is getting worse in part because of the expiration of enhanced federal Medicaid support in June 2011. Oregon, for example, increased mental health spending by $57.4 million from 2009 to 2011—23 percent. But it will lose $156 million because of the expiration. The report provides much data that helps to explain the crisis, how we got here and where we are headed.
Budget cuts aren’t just about data.
In real, human terms, lives are at risk.
Mental health cuts mean that clinics, crisis centers and hospitals close. Admissions are frozen. Emergency room visits increase. Where services remain, staff is cut, wait times for appointments are stretched and when people finally are seen, it's for shorter amounts of time.
People don't get the right help in the right place at the right time. Communities suffer and families break under the strain. Some people end up living on the street or dead.
Two months ago, the news media focused intensely on the nation’s mental health care system in the wake of the Arizona tragedy in which a young man with symptoms of mental illness killed six persons and wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.
As was the case with the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, national attention is too often fleeting, soon moving on to another topic. Less visible tragedies take place everyday in our communities—suicides, homelessness, arrests, incarcerations, school drop-outs and more. The service system in many communities is fractured and simply not accessible to all in need.
NAMI’s report focuses primarily on non-Medicaid mental health services, which are financed with state general funds and provided through state mental health agencies. It is the part of the mental health system that state legislatures have the most control over.
Medicaid funds many essential community treatment and rehabilitation services. Hard decisions will have to be made regarding general funds and Medicaid expenditures in legislative sessions that are happening now in your state and mine. Without your help it is unlikely that mental health will escape more of the budget ax.
The time is now to talk to your elected policymakers. These are dangerous times. We have not seen cuts like those outlines in this report in our lifetime. You have the power to move your elected officials. In fact, we have more power than we know. In the wake of the report, please be an advocate and speak out.
You can do so by clicking here to send a message to your elected officials. Write letters to the editors. Post media stories highlighting the mental health budget crisis on your Facebook page and on other social media.
Save mental health. No more cuts.
Give us back our lives. Give us back our futures. Tell everybody you know.