May is “National Mental Health Awareness Month.”  Across the country organizations will work to raise awareness in an effort to reduce stigma.

Yet, each day the front pages of Connecticut’s newspapers are likely to report new incidents of tragic violence of one person toward another.  Some will tell the story of the horrible crescendo of long-standing strife within a struggling family.  Other news will give the latest examples of violence in the community that is random, where the victims, anonymous to the perpetrator, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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While Connecticut policy makers and mental health experts have debated various solutions, will our best intentions actually result in increased services for those who need it most?  How can we ensure that we get this right?

To the extent that such debate and questioning leads us to build a better mental health service delivery system, some good can come from all of this.

A prime example is the planning that is underway to turn the language in Public Act 13-178, a legislative response to the Newtown tragedy, into an improved children’s mental health system.  The intent is to provide better early identification, referral, and service delivery to those who might lead productive lives, reaching their potential, rather than leading a life of tragedy and unfulfilled dreams.

The challenge that is getting some, but too little, discussion is that this planning is happening at exactly the same time when already-inadequate funding to providers, such as Child Guidance Clinics and School-Based Health Centers, is several years into being flat at best.  This includes flat funding of state subsidy grants and HUSKY/Medicaid and other insurance reimbursement rates. Even greater funding threats loom on the near horizon.  Most of these private, non-profit services lose money every time a client is served.

What will prevent this trajectory from going from bad to worse, potentially leading some children’s mental health providers to close certain services?

Funding for services to adults, many of whom are the parents of the children we claim to care about, has already been significantly reduced.  All who are involved in crafting improvements to the children’s mental health system must have the sustained wisdom and courage to honestly look at the actual cost of delivering quality care, rather than doing what is usually done by determining the size of the funding “pie” and then backing into decisions regarding the quality and availability of services.

Improving early identification and referral are wonderful and achievable goals, but the end result will be only frustration if fewer providers are “home” to answer the phone and come to the door.  Providers, consumer representatives, funding sources, and policy makers have a chance to get it right and make a real, positive difference moving forward, and we have a shared obligation to do so.

Let’s create more than window dressing this time around.

Rick Calvert, ACSW, LCSW is chief operating officer for Child and Family Agency of Southeastern CT.

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