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October 2 through October 8, 2016 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Each year, the week provides an opportunity to fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care.
In Vermont, 1 in 5 people are affected by mental illness – approximately 23,000 adults and 6,000 youth and teenagers. One in 17 adults lives with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Vermont needs to ensure that adequate funding will be available for mental health treatment and services.
The State of Vermont has become a leader in the nation by establishing community-based mental health treatment designated agencies to serve communities locally. The need for mental health services has grown steadily and even intensively in certain areas. Since Tropical Storm Irene reshaped the banks of our system of care, funding has not matched the needs of the new system for mental health services. Budget shortfalls have eroded the service structure even further, with continually slipping Medicaid reimbursement rates already starting to upset Vermont’s mental health landscape. Cutting mental health services causes unintended consequences that will increase other health care costs in the long run. We need to invest more in effective community services to prevent further services from being washed away.
The human impact of underfunded mental health services cannot be understated. Untreated mental health conditions cost our state in emergency rooms, corrections, homeless shelters, law enforcement, schools and other public services. People need prompt, immediate care and should not be waiting in emergency rooms. We need to increase staffing and funding so that acute care and respite beds are available for patients when needed. We need solutions – individuals with mental illness should not have to suffer and wait for care.
Now is the time to focus on an integrated system of health care, where physical, mental, emotional wellbeing and spiritual health services are all working together. Mental health is a health service that needs to be treated the same as other forms of health care.
The need for mental health treatment is on the rise. In Vermont, there are 80 suicides annually. This is higher than the number of motor vehicle deaths or homicides in Vermont. The vast majority of those who die by suicide live with mental illness – often undiagnosed or untreated. Protecting and strengthening state and local mental health services will save lives.
The time to resolve these critical issues are at hand. We have the opportunity to capitalize on recent advances in mental health, and optimize use of the new infrastructure provided by the Department of Mental Health’s designated agencies. Rather than forcing these organizations to do more with less through chronic budget skimming, Vermont must dedicate resources to a mental health system of care that will work.
NAMI Vermont is the independent Vermont chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a statewide non-profit, grassroots, volunteer organization comprised of family members, friends, and individuals affected by mental illness. As our mission, NAMI Vermont supports, educates and advocates so that all communities, families, and individuals affected by mental illness or mental health challenges can build better lives.