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Conn. health advocates call on state, federal governments to address 'shadow mental health pandemic'

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Connecticut advocates and health providers are making it clear to state and federal lawmakers that mental health and addiction should be a top priority in legislative agendas going forward.

“A shadow mental health pandemic is raging in our nation, and youth are most certainly at the epicenter,” said Wizdom Powell in her testimony to members of Congress during a hearing last week. Powell has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health.

Advocates and providers point to rising rates of clinical conditions like PTSD, generalized anxiety and depression in both children and adults, overflowing emergency rooms with patients seeking psychiatric care, and climbing numbers of drug overdose deaths during the pandemic – trends seen in Connecticut and nationally.

Connecticut experts said these are the results of systems that were broken long before COVID-19 came along.

“When faced with an outdated and fragmented health system, families and individuals have to make tough and unsatisfying choices about where to seek health care,” Powell said.

She was among a small group of experts who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 2 in its first hearing on mental health in more than a decade.

At the state level, advocates have called on the Connecticut legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont to invest more money into solutions to address crisis-level conditions in unmet behavioral health care needs among adults and children.

The new state legislative session begins Wednesday. Both Democrats and Republicans have pledged to focus on mental health and addiction this year.

Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said there have been past attempts to improve access to, and the quality of, mental and behavioral health services, but making recommendations and having them implemented are two disjointed different steps.

“We’ve been in this space before,” she said Thursday on a call with reporters. “We will continue to be in the same space if this state does not do what is necessary to not only support the infrastructure of the mental health and addiction services system, but also all our other systems.”

A coalition of 16 advocacy and labor organizations sent a letter Thursday to Lamont and majority leaders of the Connecticut Senate and House of Representatives with recommendations on where to make investments.

They focused on three main areas: expanding preventive, treatment and crisis services; prioritizing funding for care in Black and brown communities, for people with disabilities and for those in undocumented communities; and adopting a holistic, integrated system of care for children.

A significant number of those recommendations requires solving staffing issues that have long plagued the mental health and addiction field of care, said Darnell Ford. He is a lead children’s services worker at Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center, a state-administered psychiatric facility in Middletown.

“Currently, we have kids that are in the emergency room, we have units that are closed, we have beds that are available but not used, simply because we haven’t taken enough steps to hire enough staff,” Ford said.

Coalition members estimate there are as many as 800 vacant positions in the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services alone, including at state-operated psychiatric and addiction treatment hospitals.

“Simply put, we need the staff,” Ford said. “We need more than that, but we definitely need the staff. The state needs to take [a] commitment to fill these positions.”

Other recommendations in the letter include adding positions for more behavioral health specialists, community health workers, social workers, housing coordinators and peer specialists at DMHAS and other state agencies.

Recommended changes could total about $67 million, according to coalition members.

State officials say Connecticut is projecting an operating surplus of $1.48 billion heading into the legislative session.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.
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