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Murt: Mental health needs investment

Did you ever wonder what you would say if your child came home and said: “My friend said he wants to kill himself?” What you would say to the parent worried about the future of their adult child who is struggling with mental illness? Who would you call? Where would you start? The answer should be a trusted source in your own community.

Tom Murt

Pennsylvania is facing a serious crisis, the consequences of which impact some of the most vulnerable individuals and families. Access to community-based care is disappearing at an alarming rate as a decade of inadequate funding is taking its toll. Communities, with our counties statewide at the forefront of service delivery, need long-term and sustainable funding solutions to continue to grow and maintain supports regarding mental health. We know that, with the appropriate level of services, people living with mental illness and substance use disorder can recover and be independent and contributing members of their communities. Much of the legislation that I have authored in Harrisburg has been directed toward this mission.

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Funding for community-based mental health services in the state simply has not kept pace with the growing needs, higher demands and, most of all, costs. Community mental health base funds are used by our counties to provide crisis intervention, community-based disaster response, suicide prevention, community residential programs, family-based support and outpatient care, relief for family caregivers, professional training, justice system diversion as well as housing and employment services. Simply put, county programs use these funds to address the elements that are essential for successful long-term health and well-being.

Pennsylvania has not invested adequately in these critical community resources. In fact, these funds have been eroded by state budget cuts and the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments.

Consequently, community-based programs no longer have the resources to be innovative and keep up with the demand for needed services. In fact, funding shortages have contributed to the closure of many community-based services. In addition, the lack of adequate services for many of our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental illness have driven them to homelessness, and sometimes to violence, including gun violence.

The lack of available service capacity in the community ultimately results in increased costs for taxpayers, as it drives people to seek help in emergency rooms, increases homelessness and leads to individual involvement in our local and state justice and juvenile systems. Being incarcerated is one of the worst places to be if you need counseling, therapy or mental health treatment.

Without a firm structural base and a sound ongoing state funding strategy, additional resources will be spent on temporary fixes that will be unable to address demand.

In a time when we are working to foster a decrease in stigma around seeking and receiving mental health services, adequately funding mental health base programs is critical to ensuring that the services will be available. As we begin the process to develop the state budget for FY 2020-2021, I urge my colleagues in the legislature and administration to support increases in these important services that our counties deliver to our families, friends and neighbors every day.

Without these investments, our community mental health system will be unable to address the needs of those who turn to it for help, including much-needed prevention programs.  If we continue the status quo of languishing state funding, the questions above will only become harder and harder to answer.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey said that, “The moral test of government is how we care for people in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” If we don’t fund this human services mission as we should, and if we do not care adequately for Pennsylvanians who struggle with mental illness, we fail that moral test, about which Humphrey spoke. ••

Rep. Thomas Murt is chairman of the Human Services Committee and the Disabilities Caucus.

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