Hochul’s ambitious plan to tackle mental health is desperately needed

It can no longer be swept away.

New York state is in the midst of a mental health crisis. It has been developing for decades and has rapidly escalated since the onset of the pandemic, which has seen substantial increases in every category of psychological disorder, from anxiety to obsessive/compulsive to severe mental illness. Between March 2020 and today, more than one in three New Yorkers have sought mental health care or know someone who has.

The state’s top leaders are finally paying serious attention.

Mental health formed the focus of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s state of the state address on Tuesday. In it, she announced a $1 billion initiative that will restore up to 1,000 psychiatric hospital beds across New York City and add nearly 50 teams of physicians and counselors capable of providing outpatient services to people with severe mental illness worldwide. the state.

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Attorney General Letitia James is coming to the Buffalo Center Library this week (Wednesday, January 18, 11:00) for a public hearing on this crisis — and she’ll get an ear from local health care advocates and others about how desperate she is the situation is. Members of the public, advocacy groups, and healthcare professionals are encouraged to attend and testify.

The insights and action plans emerging from James’ listening tour—this is the second such hearing—should augment and inform Hochul’s expansion of insufficient mental health care resources available in Western New York and elsewhere in the state.

Mental health is a national issue, but Buffalonians can be forgiven for thinking they’ve been singled out for special attention by the stress gods: The city is emerging from a months-long spell of woe that includes a racist massacre that killed 10 residents, a historic blizzard that killed at least 44 people, and the shocking collapse of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin during a “Monday Night Football” game. Hamlin, now back in Buffalo, appears to be on the road to recovery.

Aside from the specific circumstances that have led to further anxiety and stress, New York’s ability to deal with mental illness is already hampered by factors such as these:

• One-third of children’s psychiatric beds in New York City have been lost since 2014. Outpatient and community-based mental health services that should have replaced inpatient psychiatric care are underfunded and cannot hire or retain enough skilled workers staff members. For this reason, the immediate addition of new beds is a critical element of the new project.

• Private insurers are notorious for underpaying mental health providers and failing to cover preventive care, despite the fact that both state and federal law require health insurance plans to cover mental health and use disorder treatment of substances in the same way as they cover the treatment of physical health. That’s why Hochul wants to fill the critical gaps in that coverage and ban its denial.

• Although hospitals are legally required to evaluate and stabilize anyone who comes to the emergency room with a medical crisis, emergency rooms across the state are increasingly unable to handle the demand. Buffalo’s only behavioral health emergency room at Erie County Medical Center was recently reported as overcrowded and overwhelmed, with long waits for psychiatric evaluations.

In addition to the above, Hochul’s new plan would add 12 mental health emergency centers across the state to ease the strain on hospitals; triple the number of community behavior centers – which provide walk-in services – from 13 to 39; and add 3,500 housing units to serve those in crisis and those recovering. It would increase Medicaid payment rates for school clinics. It would install requirements that immediately connect high-need patients to enveloping services, bridging the gaps that often occur between emergency visits and follow-up care.

Health care workers across the state have expressed optimism, particularly regarding a commission that will study staffing and other issues within the industry. Education professionals are also heartened by the promise of new resources, including Hamburg school superintendent Mike Cornell, who cites the need for a mental health counselor in every school, mental health first aid training for all working in schools and – at best – a dedicated family support center in each district. All of this requires money, annual costs that will still be there when a single cash infusion has run out.

“We can’t confuse taking off with landing,” warns Cornell, adding that sustaining any new initiative for decades will be critical.

What’s missing from Hochul’s plan? It’s probably too early to tell. Unlike many other illnesses, mental illness is rarely cured and its symptoms rarely disappear completely.

If mentally ill New Yorkers are able to get emergency care in a timely manner, that’s one thing. If 10 years from now the majority of these people are still receiving effective follow-up care, have secure living conditions, are engaged in various types of meaningful occupations, and are able to enjoy appropriate social interactions, let’s call that a good measure of success. .

We’re not there yet. But now there is new hope.

Here are three resources for those who need them immediately:

• Crisis services, 716-834-3131, crisisservices.org: Crisis Services is a proven resource for its 24/7 hotline and more. This help is always free.

• Mental Health Advocates of WNY, 716-886-1242, mhawny.org: Non-clinical services that promote mental well-being and assist in navigating the mental health delivery system.

• Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Dial/Send SMS 998

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