The phrase "mental health treatment" can sometimes produce a negative connotation; but did you know that national estimates indicate that one in four people will experience mental illness during their lifetime, and people with serious mental illnesses generally experience a shortened lifespan — on average, 25 years shorter than people without mental illness?
The mental health treatment gap in Utah is vast, a point made starkly clear in the 2012 annual report of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, a division of the Utah Department of Human Services. In 2012, 5.4 percent of Utah adults and 4.7 percent of Utah youths under 18, were in need of treatment for mental health issues, according to the report. This may be your child, parent, neighbor, spouse, co-worker or yourself. Everyone is affected by a mental health issue, whether dealing with it directly or indirectly. Yet the report said the public mental health treatment system served 44,641 individuals — less than 31 percent of the need. That means a combined total of 102,131 adults and children are in need of — but not receiving — mental health treatment services.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Those suffering from mental illness can be helped. Valley Mental Health, the organization I lead, operates in Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties, offering more than 62 programs serving those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Each and every day, programs like ours help people address their illnesses and change their lives. Community mental health centers provide an essential service for the people of Utah.
But budget cuts have steadily diminished the capacity of the centers to help those suffering from mental illness. A bill before the U.S. Senate would go a long way toward filling this void. Right now, Congress is debating legislation that would make a meaningful national commitment to community mental health services.
The Excellence in Mental Health Act would restore a steady funding stream for community behavioral health centers — $1.4 billion in Medicaid funding over 10 years. The services funded by the Excellence Act would be aimed at uninsured and low-income Americans with the most serious and persistent mental health conditions — the very people most in need of help and least able to access it. If this bill passes, Utah would be able to fund a broad range of mental health services, including 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs as well as expanded support for families of people living with mental health issues. After years of funding cuts from federal and state budgets, that money could make a real difference in our state.
In addition to saving lives, providing community-based mental health services is a good investment. When people receive timely and effective treatment, it reduces expensive ER visits and hospitalizations. Members of law enforcement recognize the potential savings as well. They have seen their resources increasingly diverted away from public safety in order to address unmet mental health needs. Though there is broad bipartisan support for improving access to behavioral health services, the fate of the Excellence Act is uncertain.
We look forward to engaging with Sen. Orrin Hatch and our friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C., to work on this life-saving legislation that would aid every community in our state. The case managers, therapists, psychiatrists, nurses and counselors in our state are ready to be part of the solution. But, we can't do so without adequate funding. Please join me in urging Sen. Hatch and our other elected officials in Washington to help pass the Excellence Act.
Gary Larcenaire is president and CEO of Valley Mental Health in Salt Lake City.