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People from across Pa. detail dangerous waits for mental health care, plead for more funding

Patriot-News - 9/27/2023

People from throughout Pennsylvania marched and rallied in Harrisburg on Wednesday, describing severe shortages of mental health services that can cause delays of a year or more even for people who are suicidal.

Donna Black, who traveled to the event from Lehigh County, said she lost a 13-year-old relative to suicide, and another loved one with mental illness is on a year-long waiting list for a doctor within reasonable driving distance.

“Imagine feeling suicidal and being told to wait six months before you can see a doctor,” she said.

Organizers said the event draw more than 300 mental health advocates and Pennsylvanians impacted by mental illness. They spent part of their day meeting with lawmakers to persuade them to devote more funding to mental health services.

Beyond shortages of inpatient beds and outpatient therapists to provide ongoing care for people such as those who have been given medication for depression, they said funding levels result in low wages that fail to attract and retain mental health professionals — another major problem.

They also described a perplexing and frustrating year in terms of Pennsylvania’s effort to expand access to mental health care.

On one hand, state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh County, called it a “bipartisan” issue, with every Democrat and most Republicans voting for a recent House bill to spend $100 million on mental health care for adults. The funding was widely expected to be included in the 2023-2024 state budget.

As the same time, Gov. Josh Shapiro called for a $100 million investment in school-based mental health care. And that was in addition to $20 million to begin offsetting cuts to county-based mental health programs made in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse.

But the final budget signed by Shapiro contained $100 million for the school-based mental health care, but not the $100 million toward care for adults. So what many lawmakers and advocates believed would be a $220 million investment in mental health care — one they viewed as a good start in a years-long process of sufficiently funding mental health — amounted to only $120 million.

“A reasonable funding package would allow us to expand services, fairly pay our hardworking employees and help those who need it,” said Christine Michaels, the CEO of NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania, which advocates for people with mental illness.

Jessica Lawson was among a group of advocates with the Mental Health Association of Franklin and Fulton Counties who attended the event. She said people in need of outpatient mental health treatment in Franklin and Fulton commonly wait 1-2 years.

She said people in crisis can typically obtain hospital care, but struggle to obtain ongoing outpatient care.

“There are a lot of gaps in communication and sharing of resources in our area that’s politically driving in my opinion. There are a lot of opposing views on this issue and on what’s valid and what’s needed. We see the real people every day who are suffering because of this,” she said.

Donna Thorman traveled to the event from Northhampton County. She said she became involved in the issue after a loved one was forced to leave college because of depression. Through NAMI, she became a trained advocate who works with others in need of mental health care.

She said the shortage of long-term support following a mental health crisis is severe and often devastating.

“They either die by suicide or they start drinking again or they stop taking their medication. It is a recidivism rate that we can stop if we have the resources to help people get through that crucial time,” she said.

Diane Williams of Lehigh County said he has been treated for depression throughout her life and is a certified peer recovery specialist, a role that has put her in contact with others needing treatment for mental illness.

The 67-year-old said the need for treatment commonly results in being “put on hold or not even finding what you need or just being pushed here and there and here and there.”


Dangerous or not, people in mental health crisis in Pa. wait months, or longer, for help

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