This week marks the annual National Mental Health Awareness Week. How did our state legislature prepare for this occasion? By cutting $110 million in funding last month for North Carolina's eight regional mental health agencies and proposing another $152 million in cuts for the next fiscal year.
The cuts were included in the new state budget, sneakily pushed through by Republican lawmakers on Sept. 18.
The affected agencies are in charge of streamlining North Carolina's public mental healthcare system. They dispense Medicaid dollars for treatment and help vulnerable patients navigate the convoluted twists and turns of the state's provider network.
This gives patients a resource to turn to in their community instead of resorting to costly emergency room visits when they need urgent treatment, a problem one 2013 CDC study showed was affecting our state at twice the national average.
The agencies also keep a reserve of funds to use for exploring treatment innovations and investing in outreach programs for earlier diagnoses. Those funds are what will now bridge the financial gap in the agencies' daily operations.
It's bizarre that the state would cut funding to mental healthcare right now. We're entering the closing months of a year that's seen more than one mass shooting per day on average. Two of the most horrific to grip the nation's attention — in Charleston and Roanoke — occurred in neighboring states. I'm not necessarily saying better mental healthcare would've prevented these tragedies, but you know who is? The NRA and many Republicans who oppose gun control.
Earlier this year, our Republican-controlled legislature rolled back gun regulations, so it's clear they don't intend to protect the public by limiting gun availability. The new budget makes it clear they also don't intend to protect the public even by their own party's logic of making mental healthcare more available.
Citizens are understandably sick of being terrorized by lone gunman with a chip on their shoulder, firing off rounds indiscriminately in everyday places. And now our lawmakers are refusing to take meaningful action on any front that may help.
It's also a strange time to cut funding considering the Governor's office just issued an executive order that forms a task force on mental health and substance abuse. An order which stated in its opening sentences: "mental illness and substance use disorders are among the biggest health care challenges that our state will face over the next decade; and providing appropriate treatment for people with mental illness and substance use disorders can significantly benefit individuals, families, communities and taxpayers."
In a 2013 study conducted in part by North Carolina State University, researchers proved it saves taxpayers money to provide treatment to the mentally ill in their communities instead of where many of them will likely end up — prison.
According to that study, patients who had been arrested and received less mental health treatment cost the government $22,000 more during the study period, compared to those who received more treatment and were not arrested. People with persistent mental illnesses are over-represented in the criminal justice system. In 2006, the Department of Justice found that about two-thirds of inmates in local jails and about half of state and federal prisoners had mental health problems.
In fact, the Mecklenburg County Jail is one of the largest — and ostensibly most expensive — mental health providers in the state, booking at least 12 people a day with a history of mental illness. The jail's medical provider conducted 1,127 new patient visits for psychiatry in 2014 and 1,135 follow-up psychiatry visits, according to the National Association of Counties.
This year's budget didn't completely give the shaft to mental healthcare. There is money allocated to provide hundreds of new and desperately-needed inpatient psychiatric beds in rural and community hospitals, but they won't fill the void of ongoing care and treatment so many patients need, and in many cases find, through the regional state agencies.
Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson) had a great question when debating these budget cuts: "We're saying that people with chronic mental illness need to go to prison to receive services. Why not do prevention and jail-diversion programs more in North Carolina?"
My question is, if these budget cuts aren't saving taxpayers' money, and they're not saving lives, what exactly are they accomplishing?