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Fund mental health care in NJ to counter pandemic stress, says Debra L. Wentz

Fund mental health care in NJ to counter pandemic stress, says Debra L. Wentz

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The text of a bill currently before the New Jersey Legislature (S2708/A4446) begins by stating, “Publicly financed mental health, behavioral health, and addiction services are critical to the health, safety, and well-being of the people of New Jersey.” The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies could not agree more.

The text goes on to say, “The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation resulting from its outbreak has, and will continue to cause, increased demand for the public provision of these services.” Study after study is showing this to be true. Just this past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report noted that one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, and more than 40 percent of those surveyed indicated they have experienced a mental or behavioral health condition connected to the COVID-19 emergency. The stress families are under does not escape the children in their households. Poll results published in Pediatrics stated that “27% of parents reported worsening mental health for themselves, and 14% reported worsening behavioral health for their children since March.”

This is why it is critical to not only maintain funding for adult and children’s behavioral health services in New Jersey’s FY2021 budget, but also to cover the exceptional additional costs providers have incurred to maintain the safety of their staff and clients, and to invest in expanded capacity to meet the growing need that will continue well into the future. Gov. Murphy’s FY2021 budget, due out later this month, must ensure that the needs of New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens are met, as well as recognize the exponentially increasing needs of the general population for behavioral health services as a result of the pandemic.

The stressors on children and families continue to grow as they face an uncertain fall semester. Parents of young children who work outside the home are facing the decision of sending their children to school and risking the families’ health, not being able to work or the economic impact of unexpected childcare costs. Those who work at home face similar decisions regarding health, ability to conduct work, and how to also oversee learning.

The stress on those who were already receiving treatment for diagnosed mental illnesses or addictions is also taking a toll as many are affected by social isolation and reduced hours of services. While programs have continued services both via telehealth and in the community throughout the pandemic, and continue to ramp up in-person services, many clients remain too fearful to go out or have providers come to their homes. For some without phones or computers, that may mean no services at all.

Prior to COVID-19, many community-based programs were already operating with deficits due to inadequate rates. During COVID, they have incurred additional unanticipated expenses for personal protective equipment, cleaning services, quarantine spaces, overtime, testing and more.

Now, the number of New Jerseyans each program can safely serve is controlled by social distancing guidelines. Those guidelines will either lead to further reduced revenues by limiting capacity or, with the doubling or tripling of staff shifts and transportation runs to accommodate those guidelines and maintain previous capacity, further increased costs.

If the FY2021 budget does not provide support to increase capacity, tens of thousands of New Jersey’s adults and children in need of services will go untreated or seek treatment in emergency rooms, an inefficient and costly alternative.

The impacts of COVID-19, which have no end in sight, are expected to increase for an unforeseen time. We are appreciative of the Legislature’s intent “to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of essential mental health, behavioral health and addiction services.”

In order to do so, the governor’s budget must align with that intent and ensure that community-based programs are provided adequate resources to continue safely serving their communities.

Mental health and substance use disorder treatment services save dollars and lives. Adequate funding to avoid layoffs and program closures in the community-based behavioral health system is essential for a healthy New Jersey, as well as the state’s bottom line.

Debra L. Wentz, of Hopewell in Mercer County, is president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

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