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EDITORIAL: Wolf offers promising mental health plan; will funds follow?

Times Leader - 1/3/2020

Jan. 3--On the front page of today's Times Leader, readers will see a story about Gov. Tom Wolf's announcement to improve mental health services and change public perceptions of mental illness here in Pennsylvania.

As the Associated Press reports, Wolf on Thursday rolled out an initiative that includes more resources and a public outreach campaign, saying the approach was inspired by a similar strategy the state has deployed in response to the opioid crisis.

"For those struggling with their mental health, we have one message: your mental health matters and it's OK to reach out for help," Wolf said.

His campaign, "Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters," includes developing new state regulations on health insurance coverage, coordinating services for physical and behavioral health, analyzing pay and other factors for those who provide mental health services, and finding ways to get more social workers into schools, the AP added.

The program also will include training more state workers in suicide prevention, assessing Department of Military and Veterans Affairs resources regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and self-harm, and widening Aging Department information and training about dementia.

Wolf will host a discussion about mental illness today at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, part of an attempt to reduce the stigma that can be a barrier to mental health treatment, the AP reported, and additional details will be announced in the coming weeks.

To give you a sense of the magnitude of this country's mental health needs, consider these 2018 statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

--9.1% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness (47.6 million people).

--4.6% of U.S. adults experienced serious mental illness (11.4 million people).

--16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 experienced a mental health disorder (7.7 million people).

--43.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness, and 64.1% of U.S. adults with serious mental illness received treatment.

--The average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.

--11.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness and 13.4% of adults with serious mental illness had no insurance coverage in 2018.

--60% of U.S. counties do not have a single practicing psychiatrist.

Consider the implications of those numbers, and how many families are touched by them.

Even for families with good insurance and access to care, getting the necessary treatment for a loved one with serious mental illness can be painfully difficult. It's hard to imagine someone with cancer or heart disease running away from the professionals that can cure them. Those of us whose relatives have suffered from mental health conditions know all too well that the nature of their conditions often lead them to fear doctors and hospitals, refusing treatment and medication.

And despite what some might think, forcing someone into treatment against their will is not easy -- or legal -- in many cases.

The governor's focus on this issue is a much-needed step forward, but more battles lie ahead.

"Wolf said the initiative may need additional funding but said it was probably too early in the information-gathering stage to be seeking money from the Legislature in next month's annual gubernatorial budget address," the AP reported.

Americans with mental health issues, and their loved ones, have been struggling with the impacts of funding cuts and insufficient access to care and facilities -- not to mention unfair stigma -- for generations.

We truly hope that Wolf is serious about this initiative, and that legislators from both sides of the aisle will give it the consideration and funding it deserves.

-- Times Leader

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(c)2020 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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