It would be easy to miss a major victory in the cause of improving mental health services and awareness for Connecticut residents on the CT form 1040 this year.

At the end of the form, there is a list of causes to which taxpayers can donate all or a portion of their state tax refund. It’s a who’s who of well-known causes: wildlife, breast cancer, military families, AIDS research, college funds, safety net services, organ transplants … and now mental health and substance use.

Through the Mental Health Community Investment Account, taxpayers can contribute directly to a cause that affects everyone. Given that one in five people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime, that means we are talking about our friends, neighbors, community members, and family. The inclusion of mental health on the CT 1040 is a clear sign that we as a state are committed to taking on mental health and substance use challenges the same way we face other widespread health issues.

The funds raised will go straight to private nonprofits who provide community-based mental health services. Organizations across the state will have equal opportunity to apply for these funds via grants. Currently, the other charities listed on the 1040 receive annual funding anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000.

Before Mental Health Connecticut proposed this idea to legislators, I had many conversations with taxpayers. I discovered few people were aware that donating to any charity through their 1040 is an option. We hope that, through greater awareness, we can help increase the amount of funds received across all charities.

Now that an unpredictable state budget is our new normal, increasing support for community-based programs is critical to how Connecticut helps our friends and neighbors in need. Mental health and substance use programs such as housing, care coordination, job placement, group therapy, wellness programs, peer support – and the list goes on and on – exist because they work. They also save the state thousands and thousands of dollars every year.

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) will act as the fiduciary and will work in collaboration with a committee comprised of non-profit providers, people with lived experience, advocates, and others from the community. DMHAS will award these funds to the not-for-profit community agencies who demonstrate the most need for assistance in their communities and best outline how the funds will be allocated within their programs. The donations will not be funneled through any general fund wherein a percentage would be lost.

The fact that award decisions will be made by the peers of those who will ultimately benefit from mental health prevention and treatment services is also a step toward widespread understanding that people who live with mental health conditions make vital contributions to our community every day and should be part of the process of addressing this issue.

Unfortunately, too many people are unaware of how prevalent mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and substance abuse disorders are in the United States. The stigma surrounding mental health in this country (which ultimately sets the stage for discrimination) perpetuates the falsehood that mental health conditions are less “real” than physical health conditions or something experienced by people you don’t know, and thus less important to our overall wellbeing.

The addition of mental health as a cause that can be donated to on the state 1040 wouldn’t have been possible without Rep. Matt Lesser and Rep. Prasad Srinivasan for introducing the bill and for the hard work of Mental Health Connecticut’s friend and advocate, Andy Adil. In the 2017 session, successfully passing of any bill was a longshot, even for ideas that are not divisive. Andy was able to garner support from Sen. John Fonfara, Sen. Scott Frantz, and Rep. Jason Rojas, as well as Rep. Russ Morin who was helpful in raising awareness among colleagues for the bill.

Donating to the Mental Health Community Investment account is just that — an investment in the people around you. Connecticut is largely regarded as a state with strong support for mental health, though many residents still don’t get the help they need. There are a variety of programs to suit individuals’ needs in the long term and very often enable people to live independently, engage in the community, get jobs or go back to school, volunteer, and improve their overall health and wellness.

As you fill out your 1040 this year, imagine what Connecticut would look like if everyone received the mental health prevention and support they need. Join Mental Health Connecticut, DMHAS, and our fellow advocates as we work together to help Connecticut nonprofits celebrate the elevation of this cause to the highest level, with a donation that will be reinvested in the future of your neighbors, family, friends and community members.

Suzi Craig is Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy at Mental Health Connecticut.

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