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Real, Meaningful Mental Health Reform is Needed

“Burnout, Done, Exhausted.” These are just some of the words mental health professionals used to describe how they are doing. I spoke to many social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists about their work and what they are experiencing on the front lines of a mental health crisis made worse by a once in century pandemic. What they shared with me and what a myriad of surveys show is that these dedicated professionals are too often left to navigate a fractured, byzantine mental health landscape that does not have the capacity to meet the ever growing mental health needs of our residents.

Their stories were heart-wrenching. During our conversations it was evident that they all cared deeply about their patients, wished they could do more to help but felt unsupported, underpaid and under-appreciated.

While state government has done much to address the mental health needs of our residents in the last legislative session it became crystal clear to me that more must be done. Here are a few of the areas the mental health professionals I spoke with recommend need addressing.

First, we must begin, with the understanding that the mental health crisis we are dealing with is one that has existed in the shadows for years—one clinician stated for at least 10 years! The pandemic shed a light on the problems with our mental health infrastructure and made it worse. One silver lining from the pandemic is that, as a culture, more people are speaking more openly about their mental health challenges and seeking help. The bad news is they can’t find the help they need.

Every person I spoke to had a very long wait list of patients waiting for services. Most can’t keep up with the demand and as a result the profession is experiencing a high number of people exiting the field leaving even more patients unable to find help and putting additional stress on an already stressed system. Many expressed the need for more well paid social workers. The legislature should explore how to get more into the field by considering tuition and licensing assistance, grants and other mechanisms to get a talent pipeline going as we battle large case loads. And, we need to give them a raise! If we are going to groom, attract and keep talented social workers in our state we need to be competitive and that means better compensation.

Additionally, many expressed frustration over the lack of an adequate continuum of care. Too often many patients, many of them children and young adults, are caught in a revolving door between the ER, home, hospital and school. One psychiatrist told me that the communication and coordination between the array of mental health service providers is abysmal and it often seems like each system is operating in its own silo. This leads to dangerous gaps of care, intensifies conditions and the lost of precious time that makes improvement for their patients all the more elusive. We should take a close look at the mental health landscape and seek synergies in order to remove these harmful structural roadblocks.

They also shared with me the dire need for more funding for school based clinics, advocated for the permanence of tele-health, expressed frustration regarding restrictive rules often set by state boards and financial and insurance challenges that create roadblocks to accessing care.

It was a sobering series of conversations and one that opened my eyes to the funding and structural challenges these dedicated professionals encounter every day. My hope is that we have learned from this pandemic valuable lessons that will lead us to tackle and transform our mental health care infrastructure. The good news is we are armed with record budget surpluses, a maxed out rainy day fund and a ton of federal dollars. Let’s work together to meet this historic moment and heed the call to make meaningful, structural improvements to our mental health infrastructure that will improve the lives of those in need and prepare us for any future crisis. The time for meaningful change is now.

By State Senator Jorge Cabrera
17th District (Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Derby, Hamden, Naugatuck, Woodbridge)

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