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Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf unveils mental health initiative that aims to ‘end the stigma’

Patriot-News - 1/2/2020

Many Pennsylvanians from children to older adults are struggling with mental health issues but lack the support and resources to get the help they need. That is a problem that Gov. Tom Wolf wants to address in the new year.

Wolf announced on Thursday the launching of a multi-agency effort and anti-stigma campaign, “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters,” that seeks to remove barriers that keep the state’s residents from access to mental health care.

One of those barriers that he and others who spoke at a Capitol news conference unveiling this campaign addressed is removing the stigma that surrounds mental health.

“Silence breeds shame. I want every Pennsylvanian to feel comfortable reaching out to someone if they are struggling,” Wolf said. “I want every Pennsylvanian reaching out if they know someone else who is struggling. I want to end the silence because I want to end the stigma.”

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Wolf shared the impetus for this initiative grows out of a desire to try to replicate the success the state had in dealing with the opioid crisis by opening up conversations to combat the stigma surrounding that epidemic and crafting a multi-agency response to address it. The governor plans to kickoff the Reach Out PA campaign by hosting a roundtable discussion at Muhlenberg College on Friday to hear directly from people battling the stigma and collaborate with community organizations working to increase attention to mental illness and mental health.

Wolf was unclear about the anticipated cost for the campaign or whether more funding to provide mental health services would be part of his 2020-21 budget proposal to be unveiled next month. But clearly the latter was uppermost in the minds of some of those who issued statements lauding the initiative.

While supportive of the campaign, officials from the statewide association representing county commissioners said state funding to provide community-based mental health services haven’t pace with the demand they are seeing..

Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, indicated hospitals share the concern about funding. "During the coming weeks and months, the dialogue that Governor Wolf has launched must include recognition that no amount of improved coordination can mask the badly over-stressed and under-resourced mental health system. We look forward to the governor’s upcoming budget blueprint which we hope will call for new resources to fill these obvious gaps.”

Wolf cited a 2017 study from the University of Southern California that spoke of the need for a broad-based effort to help Pennsylvanians struggling with mental health issues. It found that about 1 million adult Pennsylvanians struggled with serious psychological distress at least once during 2015. Of those, 27 percent had an unmet need for mental health care; close to half them because they couldn’t afford it.

The campaign involves developing new health insurance regulations to ensure coverage includes access to mental health care; creating financial incentives to managed care organizations to better coordinate care for patients’ physical and mental health needs; eliminating barriers keeping people from becoming mental health professionals; identifying areas of the state devoid of mental health services; and getting more counselors and social workers in schools.

Red Lion School District Superintendent Scott Deisley spoke of the stressors that teenagers today face with peer pressure, test anxiety, school work, and pressures to fit in. He said it can be too much for some of these young adults to handle.

“The stigma surrounding mental wellness has led many to believe that conversations about one’s feelings and emotions are taboo,” Deisley said. “Asking for help is often seen as a sign of weakness to some people.”

But this campaign the governor is launching to open up conversations about it and de-stigmatize mental health issues “is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Other aspects of the campaign take aim at other vulnerable populations who struggle with mental health issues. This includes training more state workers dealing with people who lose their job to recognize those at risk of suicide or in need of mental health intervention; assessing effectiveness of programs that educate members of the military and veterans about resources available to help those with post-traumatic stress and at risk of harming themselves or others; and expanding access to the Department of Aging’s information and training about dementia.

About the latter, Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, a trade association representing senior housing, health care and community services, said, “As one of the grayest states in the nation, access to critical mental care for seniors is increasingly important. LeadingAge PA looks forward to working with the Wolf administration and the Dementia Friends program to help improve the lives of Pennsylvania seniors who are fighting this disease.”

Wolf said he sees the campaign as the “beginning of what I plan to grow into a large-scale effort to combat mental health issues in Pennsylvania. We’ve seen success with a multi-prong attack against the opioid crisis. Reach Out PA will do the same with mental health.”

Jan Murphy may be reached at jmurphy@pennlive.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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