(Editorial) Sen. Somers: “There is a mental health crisis” in CT

February 28, 2022

The time for Connecticut to act on mental health care is now 

(Hartford Courant Editorial)

State Rep. Tammy Exum has had conversations with parents whose children needed urgent mental health support but could not obtain it. Exum is a West Hartford Democrat and deputy majority leader in Connecticut, which, by any data you might choose to use, is always listed as among the richest of states.

Connecticut is a state with $3.1 billion in its rainy-day fund, and we are expecting a $2.5 billion surplus. (Latest projections are that the state’s budget surplus will be $1.48 billion in the current fiscal year and more than $1 billion next year.) And according to Gov. Ned Lamont, it’s the third consecutive year of budget surpluses.

Yet, according to Exum, parents seeking to meet with a mental health provider for their child might be faced with a wait of three months or more.

We have to do better than that.

That kind of wait for families in crisis is unacceptable in a state that has enough in the bank to be considering tax cuts and is aiming to increase spending in a number of areas in the coming year

Many lawmakers recognize this, and there have been proposals to address mental health, even in this short legislative session, from both sides of the political aisle.

For example, House lawmakers proposed a bill to address workforce development; it would provide licensure reciprocity for out-of-state mental health professionals, offer loan forgiveness and invest in further efforts to increase staffing, recruitment and retention, according to state Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who also is House chair of the Committee on Children.

This comes as behavioral health care providers, child advocates and representatives of state agencies have for many months noted there is a surge in demand for urgent pediatric behavioral health care in Connecticut, a crisis worsened by lack of staffing, as Courant staffer Eliza Fawcett has reported.

Right here in Hartford, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center has seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of children seeking urgent behavioral health care, as well as the severity of the illnesses, according to Howard Sovronsky, the hospital’s chief behavioral health officer.

The bill Linehan described also would fund staffing of mental health clinicians and create evidence-based peer support programs in schools, and would address insurance issues, including eliminating prior authorization for in-patient care, among other measures. Mental health is not a partisan issue, and GOP lawmakers also have pledged to address mental health care in the state, including for youths.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, has noted there is “a mental health crisis” in the state and it was here “before COVID reared its ugly head.” But she also has said the system of care is “disjointed, disconnected” and without a continuum. Like Exum she has said that the search for care is not easy and can be lengthy.

State Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, who is a doctor, has said that more psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric APRNs, PAs and social workers are needed in Connecticut. Petit noted this need is a long-term one.

Connecticut is not an outlier in any of this.

As U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy pointed out in an advisory he issued in December, “Mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the US with a reported mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder,” and this was prior to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, according to Murthy’s advisory, of the 7.7 million children with treatable mental health disorder, about half did not receive adequate treatment in 2016.

That’s a staggering number of kids who did not get enough help, and Murthy’s advisory also notes that between 2011 and 2015, “youth psychiatric visits to emergency departments for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28%” and between 2007 and 2018, “suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the US increased by 57%.”
But since the pandemic began, “rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased,” according to Murthy’s advisory.

The cost is not known yet, but there is strong support for real change from lawmakers, practitioners and parents.

The data is there across the country and in Connecticut, and the time for lawmakers to act on it is now.

As Exum notes: “Three months is a really long time when your child is in crisis and your family is in crisis, and you don’t know how you’ll get through three days.”