Pam+Romine_smallerby Pam Romine, GPS Office and Volunteer Coordinator

Even during the best of economic times, youth and adults living with mental illness struggle to access essential mental health services and supports. Services are often unavailable or inaccessible for those who need them the most. One in 17 people in America lives with a serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. About one in 10 children live with a serious mental disorder.

Unfortunately, the public often focuses on mental illness only when high visibility tragedies of the magnitude of Newtown or Seattle Pacific University occur. However, less visible tragedies take place every day in our communities—suicides, homelessness, arrests, incarceration, school drop-out and more. These personal tragedies also occur because of our failure to provide access to effective mental health services and supports

During the last two legislative sessions, it became apparent that there is a common misconception that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would greatly reduce or eliminate the need for state general funds in the mental health and substance abuse budgets. However, Medicaid’s expansion does not address the many essential services that are not Medicaid Reimbursable, most notably inpatient psychiatric treatment, Nor does it cover the many people with mental illness who do not qualify for Medicaid, either because their income is slightly higher than the Medicaid threshold (which is well below poverty level in most states) or because they are too ill to take the steps necessary to apply and qualify for Medicaid.

State general funding of mental health care is the “safety net of last resort” for children and adults living with serious mental illness. Over the recent years states have cut vital services for tens of thousands of youth and adults living with the most serious mental illness. These services include community and hospital based psychiatric care, housing and access to medications.

In Washington State, flexible non-Medicaid mental health funding from the state general fund has been reduced by 33.2 million (27%) since 2009. And, state non-Medicaid substance abuse funding has been reduced by 20.2 million (25%) statewide since 2010.

Communities pay a high price for cuts of this magnitude. Rather than saving states and communities’ money, these cuts to services simply shift financial responsibility to emergency rooms, community hospitals, law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities and homeless shelters.

For youth and adults living with serious mental illness, these consequences include frequent visits to emergency rooms, hospitalizations, homelessness, entanglement with juvenile and criminal justice systems, the loss of critical developmental years, premature deaths and suicides.

With appropriate services, people living with serious mental illness can and do achieve recovery and independence in their lives. Let’s restore non-Medicaid funding for mental health and substance abuse services, and improve the lives of children and adults, and the health of our community.