I am involved in several different ways with the mental health system in Tennessee, but I write this letter not as an advocate or member of any group, but as a private citizen. Many of the people I know have mental health issues in their life or in the life or someone they love. Most of the people I know are very concerned about what the coming legislative debate and decisions about the mental health budget will mean for them and their loved ones. It is a concern I share.
There are many good and committed people in the Tennessee mental health system. This includes both providers and consumers. People are trying hard to impact the lives of those in need in a positive fashion. But despite their best efforts the system is, I and many others believe, on life support. It is fragmented and inadequate to meet the needs of many of those most needing of its services. Mental illness, according to some studies, affects as many as 1 in 4 adults during their lifetime. Most of these people know and impact the lives of many others. The health of our mental health system radically effects the quality of life of literally thousands and thousands of Tennesseans.
Over the last 4 years something over $40,000,000 in permanent funding has been cut in funding for mental health programs that before the cuts was skeletal in many parts of the state. Plans I recently heard indicate that as much as $5,000,000 in permanent funding may be eliminated in the next budget. Against this efforts by advocates, consumers, providers and many of you have helped to restore about $31,000,000 in one time funding to lessen the consequences of these cuts. Many of the most valuable services offered by the department, services that are instrumental to keeping people out the hospital, out of jail, and out of the streets are included in these one time funds.
More and more of the mental health system has to be reinvented each year. The system is becoming more unstable and eventually it seems inevitable it must fall. No business of any size can exist not knowing if the next year it has to be reinvented. The one time funds have saved lives, but as a way of doing business they plant the seeds of the further impoverishment of an already impoverished system. It is time to make a commitment, not just to mental health, but a continued commitment to mental health that gives us a solid foundation to build on and improve the system.
I am asking you to be financially responsible. This is much more than a debate about the cost of any specific services. It is as much a discussion about the cost of the consequences of mental illness. You have a choice about the services you fund. You do not have a choice about the consequences that must be faced. Not to understand this is not to be realistic and not to be responsible. Often in trying to save money on services, the cost of consequences are passed on to local communities who dont have a prayer of being successful.
The equation is not simply a matter of what you decide to do costs. It is equally and even more importantly a matter of what you decide to not do costs. More people fall through the cracks when there are more cracks. It is that simple and that complicated.
The disasters of mental illness have been catalogued many times. In Tennessee more people die from suicide than homicide and car accidents combined. Our jails are becoming our biggest mental health centers. Services for children are inadequate and we are helping to create a population who will be tortured by mental illness their entire adult lives. The financial effects on business are massive. I dont know how you even put a number on the widespread misery and suffering all this entails.
We can help people with mentally illness. I have seen it in my own personal life and in the lives of many others. I have also seen what happens when we dont.
I am not asking you to be wasteful or extravagent. I am asking you to apply a new measure of responsiblity that looks at the real costs. Life is more than the short term financial bottom line. What we do right now drastically effects the future we create. It is time for all of us to get our head out of the sand and take a realistic look at where we are going and take positive and responsible steps to create the future all of us want for ourselves and our children.
Fund the mental health system on a permanent, recurring basis. Every year in January begins a new “mental health season” as we many people fight to preserve the services and help they need. Please make this the last “mental health season.”