Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer, left, stands with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, as he makes his announcement of more funding for mental illness.
Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer, left, stands with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, as he makes his announcement of more funding for mental illness.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing to fund more supportive housing and other services for people with mental illness, boosting annual mental health spending by $4.25 million in the next fiscal year and by another $3 million the year after.

The governor also wants to require police to receive training on how to respond to situations involving people with mental illness and to fund an anti-stigma campaign to make people unashamed to seek help.

The proposals, which Malloy will issue formally when the legislative session begins Feb. 5, are meant to complement changes to the state’s mental health system made last year in response to the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Malloy’s proposals, announced Friday at the Capitol Region Mental Health Center in Hartford, include:

  • About $2 million during the upcoming fiscal year to improve mental health services for “underserved populations,” such as people with serious mental illness and young adults. The amount would reach $5 million in the following fiscal year. The funds would cover services including transitional housing and residential services such as group homes, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said.
  • $2.2 million for rental assistance program vouchers and services for 110 people with serious mental illness, including some who are leaving state institutions. Malloy said the supportive housing would decrease the “revolving door of homelessness.”
  • $250,000 for an anti-stigma campaign aimed at making sure people with mental illness are not ashamed to seek treatment. Malloy said the details haven’t yet been determined, but that the campaign would likely include public service announcements, billboards and other communications.

In addition, police would be required to participate in training known as Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. The 40-hour program, which is currently available on a voluntary basis and funded by the state, includes training on mental illness and substance abuse, the mental health system, ways to de-escalate situations safely, suicide by cop and children’s mental health and trauma.

Officers learn about how to best approach people facing mental health crises. It’s recommended that they avoid using sirens and lights, for example. And if a person is hearing voices, officers learn, it’s a good idea to turn their radios down since the added noise could make the person even more distracted or agitated.

Malloy’s spending proposal includes $50,000 for the training for each of the next two fiscal years. Malloy indicated that there would also be some local responsibility. Cromwell Police Chief Anthony J. Salvatore, one of several members of law enforcement who stood behind Malloy and Rehmer during the announcement, said the idea would be to train veteran officers and incorporate the program into the training new officers receive.

Mental health and housing

The Sandy Hook shootings prompted a major new focus on mental health among lawmakers, and advocates have said they think that interest remains strong this year. That’s critical, advocates say, because the challenges facing the mental health system are complex and unlikely to be adequately addressed through quick changes.

Rehmer and Malloy described the state’s mental health system as already among the best-funded in the country. But they said the additional money is needed. Many people who are hospitalized with mental illness recover enough to be discharged, but without access to housing designed to support recovery, Malloy said, they too often backtrack.

Advocates often point to supportive housing as a particularly critical resource and source of stability for people with mental illness. The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services currently has 790 rental assistance program voucher slots that people can use for supportive housing, and Malloy’s proposal would bring the total to 900. “This is a huge boost for us,” Rehmer said.

Pat O’Neil, a spokesman for the House Republicans, said the programs Malloy wanted to fund sounded worthwhile. But he said Republicans would be wary of adding money to the budget without making cuts elsewhere. Although the state currently has a surplus, he noted, projections show there are deficits looming, and Republican lawmakers don’t want to fund ongoing programs with money that isn’t likely to be available in the future.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said he hadn’t seen the details of Malloy’s proposal, but said he he agreed about the need to do more to address mental health issues, particularly for young adults, and to eradicate stigma. But he added that he wasn’t certain what experts think is the right way to do it.

“The goal is right. I’m open to trying to hear from experts as to what they believe is the right way to address that stigma, but as to the governor’s specific proposal, I just don’t know enough about it to know if the specific proposal’s the right thing,” said McKinney, a Fairfield Republican who is running for governor.

McKinney also noted that the state still faces budget problems. “I think mental health needs to be a priority, of course, and I just want to make sure we work on it mindful of the real budget issues that still confront us,” he said.

Some of the additional funding would likely cover services provided by private nonprofit organizations, which have struggled in recent years with flat state funding or minimal increases. The new money would not cover a rate increase for the nonprofits.

Asked whether the additional money would be enough for the mental health system, Malloy said he didn’t know.

“If it isn’t, we’ll make more available,” he said.

“Mental illness, emotional disturbance is ubiquitous in our society,” Malloy said. “No family has gone untouched, and relatively few individuals have gone untouched. We’re trying to put together the right combination of services to make people’s lives as fulfilling as we possibly can and to aid the recovery.”

Police training

The Crisis Intervention Team training available to police helps officers’ confidence in responding to calls related to mental health, Louise Pyers, criminal justice project director and CIT liaison for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Connecticut, said during an interview last year.

It also hooks them into the mental health system. A CIT-trained officer responding to a mental health-related call might involve a clinician who could help connect the person to the appropriate services.

“Whereas before, that person might never have been connected to services, or they might have been arrested or they might have been sent to the emergency room and then released, still not connected to services,” Pyers said.

More than 70 police departments had at least one officer who had been through the training as of last year, and 40 departments had at least 20 percent of its patrol force trained. Pyers said it’s recommended that 20 percent to 25 percent of a department’s patrol force be trained so there’s at least one officer available on each shift to respond to mental health-related calls.

The changes related to mental health made last year include additional funding for teams of workers who provide intensive support to people with serious mental illness and a new requirement that at least one person in each school district receive training in “Mental Health First Aid,” which teaches people to recognize mental health problems and intervene. The state is also developing a telephone consultation program for pediatricians and other primary care providers to get help from child psychiatrists so they can better address patients’ mental health needs. It’s also funding more care coordination for people with mental illness.

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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