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Funding for community mental health services is a good first step, but more is needed

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The recently passed state budget for 2014-2015 contains $44 million more for community-based mental health services, $3.85 million of which is earmarked for the north country.

That is good news, and the state is moving in the right direction. At the very least, state officials are making good on their promise to use the money saved from the closure of inpatient mental health beds to provide more and better community supports for people with mental illness.

But that funding is a drop in the bucket in terms of what is needed to get rid of waiting lists, provide housing and employment support and ensure people are getting the treatment they need to function in society.

Outpatient treatment is far less costly than inpatient treatment, but it is still expensive. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie’s office, in announcing the funding, said the north country’s share will provide treatment for 270 more people. The news release did not specify over how large of a geographic area that funding will be spread.

The officials we spoke with Friday did not have very many details about how the money will be spent, and I am anxious to see how much funding is dedicated for existing services and how much will create new ones.

First and foremost, the state needs to hire more people to meet the demand for services. Case workers, social workers, counselors and doctors have case loads that are bursting at the seams, and need to divide their time among offices in different communities.

Those seeking treatment in some cases, when they can get in to see somebody, do not have a consistent person working with them. That can only disrupt the continuum of care to the frustration of the person seeking help.

Over the last two years the state Office of Mental Health has expanded services to include family and marriage counseling and other types of therapies, but has not adequately increased its workforce to provide those services. Case loads have grown, and employees are strained. That needs to change immediately.

Housing assistance and employment aid will also require a great deal more funding, especially for people who were recently discharged from inpatient treatment and need help getting their lives in order. More people will have to be hired to provide those services, and housing will need to be built.

There is no question that the state’s direction is a positive one, but funding for outpatient and community supports has been so woefully lacking up to this point that the state needs to make a tremendous investment in those services to get them where they should be.

As they look to create new services, state officials need to get a handle on the needs of existing service providers and arm them with the funding and personnel they need to fulfill their missions.

It is all well and good to expand services, but the state must have enough personnel to provide them. The state cannot expect that its existing workforce, which is already stretched far too thinly, can take on the burden of expanded services. Without increasing its workforce, the state will be setting up a system that provides poorer quality of care, simply because their employees cannot keep up with the demand. People with mental illness who are just trying to live their lives will be worse off than they are now.

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