Mental health care and addiction treatment programs hurt by budget cuts

Opinion published in the Salem Statesman Journal on April 27 2009 by Gina Nikkel, Ph.D., who the executive director of the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs. These agencies are immediately and directly affected by the Governor’s proposed budget cuts to mental health services.

The Community Mental Health Programs (CMHPs) are the primary safety net for the most seriously mentally ill and addicted in Oregon.

These programs have been consistently underfunded for many years and, in spite of criticism, they are there day after day, providing services to very high risk people.

It has been the CMHPs that have absorbed the costs of the cuts of 1,000 front line mental health workers and 1,000 addiction front line workers in the budget cuts of 2002-03. Oregon’s mental health and addictions system faces staggering cuts again in 2009; elimination of mental health crisis response, elimination of acute psychiatric care, elimination of non-Medicaid outpatient mental health care, elimination of addiction treatment, etc.

If these cuts are taken, we will face a cycle of spending even more tax dollars inappropriately in emergency rooms, jails and prisons for our most vulnerable neighbors, only this time our law enforcement, courts and corrections systems are facing similar budget cuts.

At a time when dangerous criminals wait months for a trial, cycling in and out of jails too full to hold them, when the sick and injured sit for hours in the emergency room waiting to be seen, the last thing we ought to do is burden jails and hospitals with people whose severe mental health and addictions needs they were not designed or funded to serve.

People with the disease of serious mental illness and addiction should be cared for at the most appropriate, most cost effective levels of care in the community rather than defaulting to the most expensive institutional (or worse) settings.

Oregon has implemented world class innovations such as the Children’s System Change Initiative which is serving more children in less expensive ways than ever before; the Early Psychosis Intervention programs that diagnose and help young people manage serious mental illness before its allowed to disable them; Addictions Treatment for Moms and Dads, helping parents overcome their addictions and reclaim their children from the foster care system; the Strengthening Families prevention curriculum which helps high-risk teens and their parents learn to communicate and set boundaries; and other system-wide Evidence Based Practices.

Let’s not lose heart and go backwards.