Mental health cutbacks imperil us all

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As long as there has been humanity, there has been mental illness.


For most of that time, however, mental illness has been as mysterious as a black hole floating in a distant galaxy. During the Renaissance, that period of increased enlightenment and growth in the arts, sciences and politics, the mentally ill were commonly treated by plunging their heads into water and holding them there right up to the point of suffocation. It was believed the crazed notions the mentally ill harbored would be summarily drowned as a result. Facial masks and “balancing” the amount of “black bile” in the mentally ill were also thought to bring relief.


Our understanding of mental illness has fortunately grown much more sophisticated in the last 500 years. Whether it’s generalized anxiety or full-blown, tinfoil-hat delusions, we now comprehend that mental illness is the result of a breakdown in the complex interplay of chemicals in the brain. Some stigma still lingers, but we know that mental illness is not the result of demonic possession, and nor is it the fault of those afflicted. Treatment methods have also been discovered that offer relief.


The problem, however, is getting people to doctors, psychologists and counselors and finding the dollars to treat them.


That fact was underscored at a forum Tuesday night at the Washington County Courthouse sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy. Focusing on issues related to mental health and violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December, Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo of the Washington School District pointed out that there has been a “significant increase” in mental illness in young people. Whether that is the product of organic factors or, more likely, a broadening of the definition of mental illness, it’s occurring as the amount of money devoted to mental-health treatment has been dwindling.


Between 2009 and 2012, as the Great Recession ground on and public purses tightened, $4.3 billion was cut from mental health spending nationally, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. Pennsylvania, so often out of step with the rest of the country, has been part of this particular trend – in 2012, $662 million was allocated for mental health programs statewide, down from $717 million in 2011.


And, when it comes to cutting mental-health programs in the Keystone State, it’s been a bipartisan drive, occurring in both the administrations of Tom Corbett and Ed Rendell.


The system is “under siege,” Lynne Loresch, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Washington, said Tuesday night. “For 10 years, the state budget has been cut...You have to get your person to the services. Early identification is critical and key...Brain diseases are just like heart disease.”


We’ve been told that frugality is a virtue but, where mental health is concerned, a penny saved today could cost a nickel tomorrow, in the form of crime, higher incarceration rates or other social problems. It must also be emphasized that a discussion of mental health issues should not divert attention away from the imperative of changing the nation’s gun laws to make dangerous weaponry less readily available to those with criminal impulses or individuals fogged by derangement. Both issues can, and should, be tackled simultaneously.


In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a bill has been pending for weeks that would restore $84 million in mental health funding that was excised from the 2012-13 budget. It’s a measure that deserves widespread support, even by those increasingly rare individuals or families who have not somehow had to deal with mental illness.


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