Thursday, February 3, 2011

Protecting Mental Health Services by Shirley L. Huntley - New York State Senator

Tucson’s Lesson: Protecting Mental Health Services

The tragedy in Tucson, Arizona will go down in history as one of our nation’s darkest days. Since then, many across the political spectrum have spoken out on the need to tone down the partisan political rhetoric throughout the nation and enhance the nation’s gun control enforcement. However, as the nation searches for answers, the tragedy sheds light on a more immediate concern in our society that has been habitually ignored: the state of our mental health system.

By all accounts, Jared Loughner was the epitome of the weaknesses in our mental health system: a troubled youngster, struggling to express his emotions in a perplexing society. He was banned from his college classroom until he could prove he was not a physical threat to himself, or anyone else. Think about that – an institution of higher learning recognized the serious need for mental health services and yet those services were unused. How did our mental health care delivery system reach such a point?

Sadly, with no alternative outlet, and no professional help, Loughner spiraled into his own dark world and turned to violence.

We cannot forget: for every person like Loughner who couldn’t be – or weren’t – helped there are tens of thousands of individuals that can. However, they will only receive access to the services they need if we foster an environment that encourages the restoration and repair of the mental health system in both
New York and the nation.

Fixing a Broken System

Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), recently said, “The mental-health-care ‘system’ in America is a broken system.” Mr. Fitzpatrick’s assessment could not be more precise.

Frederick Douglass once remarked how it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Access to mental health professionals at an early age can be of tremendous help to suffering individuals, and a study done by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has reported that half of all cases of mental illness appear by the age of 14, and 75 percent by age 24.

Furthermore, less than a quarter of the mentally ill get the care they need; and presently, there is an egregious lag time of nearly 9 years between the onset of mental illness and when the individual receives treatment. And in New York only 61 percent of children 2-17 with emotional, developmental, or behavioral problems received mental health care in 2007.

In the past two years the Senate Democrats worked extremely hard at improving New York’s mental health services. We passed an extension of Kendra’s Law and also passed groundbreaking legislation that changed insurance law to protect children with autism, setting the bar for a new national standard for treatment and services. Also, we were able to provide adequate funding for mental health services in last year’s budget, something that we must do again this year.

Making the Difficult Decisions

New Yorkers understand all too well that difficult decisions and tough cuts need to be made to lower state spending and balance our budget. But we must cut with care.

The duty of a public official is to protect our most vulnerable and provide a voice to the voiceless. We must remember why we are here and who needs us to fight for them. The stakes are high, and these services are critical to the well-being of all New Yorkers. We cannot continue to overlook how essential mental health services are until an event rattles the nation and then decide they are important.

Senator Huntley currently serves as Ranking Member for the Senate Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. She represents the 10th Senate District based in South East Queens. She was recently overwhelmingly elected to her third term in the State Senate.