My Turn: We all pay a price for neglecting the mental health system

For the Monitor

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Hubert H. Humphrey’s final speech contained these words: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

This past weekend I was in Los Angeles and was shocked and ashamed by the sheer number of people who are forgotten there. Every day, thousands of people, most of whom suffer with debilitating behavioral health disorders, wander aimlessly around with nothing but shopping trolleys that hold brown paper packages to ease their pain and collapsed cardboard boxes that are the only materials that come between them and the sidewalk as they sleep fitfully and, I am sure, dream of another way of life.

I have to say I was so happy to come home to New Hampshire where the fault lines of our society are less visible and far smaller in number.

But what I did come home to was a behavioral health system still in need of appropriate funding. Our House Bill 400 was a good start in a course correction – an investment in the future of a fractured system long neglected and underfunded.

The politics that have shown themselves over the past couple of weeks have whittled away moderate additions of funding for our community mental health system that is in need of attention and support. I suppose the system will do what it always does: Take what is given, work on unfunded mandates and make the best of what they have. The mental health system is nothing if not flexible and resolute.

Yet as a society we pay the price for neglect in the long run. And some pay more than others. I think particularly of those born with mental illness, people who are in the throes of addiction and the ravages it visits upon them.

Payment comes by way of our state housing those people for days and weeks in emergency rooms while they wait for appropriate care. We pay in terms of people with medical issues who wait in corridors for care while 60 percent of the emergency department at Concord Hospital is full of people waiting for mental health care.

Our thought leaders and decision-makers have seen the faces behind those numbers. They have visited the emergency department and met some of those who wait. Some of those who are desperate for treatment, for the right place to receive that treatment. They have been moved, in some instances, to tears. They know that something has to be done for the good of us all. They know that some of the people they represent are hurting and they are all in. They have identified that this crisis must be fixed, and soon.

The people of New Hampshire are decent, fair people who have a keen sense of justice. They are watching closely to see if there is fight in our legislators to get this right, to make our mental health system strong again and to rid the state of the indignity of a crisis that observes those in need waiting for days, weeks and in a couple of cases a month to get the care that they need, in an appropriate setting such as New Hampshire Hospital.

We need more beds in our system: fact. We need to fairly resource our community mental health system: fact.

We are New Hampshire. We care, and we need to get this right.

(Peter Evers is CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health Center in Concord.)