Once shrouded in mystery and misperception, we no longer look upon those suffering from mental health problems as being riddled with character defects, nor do we expect them to just “get over it” and put on their game face.
The diagnosis of mental health issues has become more sophisticated, as have treatment methods – we no longer merely assume that the child who can never sit still is being naturally rambunctious, and we don’t shrug off the teenager lost in a sullen fog as suffering from the normal pangs of adolescence. But just as our ability to intervene has increased, spending for mental health services by state governments around the country has decreased. All told, a little over $4 billion for mental health programs was excised from state budgets across the country between 2009 and 2012. Once considered to be at the head of the pack in its focus on mental illness, funding for treatment programs in Pennsylvania fell from $717 million in 2011 to $662 million in 2012.
While no one disputes that state and local budgets have been under particular strain as the Great Recession has lingered like a tenacious virus, the cuts could prove to be shortsighted over the long haul. Advocates and experts in the field make a convincing argument that a mental health issue left untreated, particularly in young people, could well metastasize and cost us all more money down the road, whether it be in outbreaks of violence, incarceration or unfulfilled potential.
A story in Sunday’s Observer-Reporter looked at how behavioral health workers have been able to make strides in treating young people with mental health challenges through intensive one-on-one treatment in homes and schools and how some of those services could be curtailed or imperiled due to the relentless budget-slicing in Harrisburg. However, there is some hope that the dollars that have ebbed away from state mental-health coffers could start flowing back in that direction, thanks to a bill pending in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that would restore $84 million that was taken out of the 2012-13 budget. Local representatives, from Republican John Maher in Upper St. Clair and Democrat Pam Snyder in Waynesburg have signed on as co-sponsors.
Some believe that mental health services have been a tempting target for budget-cutters because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. But it also could be that the gaping crater on the state highway is more visible and generates more constituent phone calls to the home office. Nevertheless, mental health needs that go untreated could pose a greater threat in the long run than a road full of potholes.