A remote press conference on Connecticut’s strained mental health system

A coalition of mental advocates and labor unions wrote Thursday to top Connecticut policymakers, calling on them to make investments and fill staffing vacancies in the state’s overburdened mental health system.

In a letter addressed to Gov. Ned Lamont and the leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly, the groups pushed for commitments during the legislative session that begins next week to fully fund and staff mental health service providers who have seen a crush of need since the outset of the pandemic.

The coalition included several SEIU unions, the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, the state’s National Association Social Workers chapter, Connecticut Youth Services Association, among others. Together they asked the state for a list of financial investments, including funding to fill 800 vacancies within the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“[A]s the global pandemic continues to ravage our state–thereby exacerbating Connecticut’s extreme racial, economic, and gender inequities–thousands of working people in our communities are struggling through an unprecedented mental health crisis,” the groups wrote.

Other requests included the investments in community-based mental health services and crisis care, funding to help struggling nonprofits retain staff, and more support for transitional services for people reintegrating into their communities following incarceration. 

The proposals for which the coalition offered fiscal estimates totaled more than $63 million. Given the strained condition of the state’s mental health system prior to the pandemic and the surge of need that has followed, advocates on a press call Thursday said the price of the investments should not be a sticking point for policymakers.

“Everything that has been suggested here is doable in the richest state in the richest country in the history of the world,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, legal director of the Transitions Clinic at Yale Law School. “We can have and must have a fully-staffed public system to deal with mental health and to deal with addiction.”

For months, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed intent to address the state’s reeling mental health system during the coming session. They have convened informational panels to examine deficits in support for childrens’ behavioral health. Last month, Senate Republicans offered a set of proposals aimed at addressing the issue. 

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s coffers are flush with cash. The budget is running a $1.5 billion surplus while the rainy day fund has swollen to its $3.1 billion limit. 

But those fiscal conditions also have policymakers eying other priorities. On Wednesday, the governor announced plans to include more than $330 million in tax cuts in the budget he proposes later this month. 

Rep. Sean Scanlon, a Guilford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee, joined the coalition during Thursday’s press conference. He told reporters it was time for lawmakers to adopt substantial investments in the mental health safety net rather than “feel-good” proposals for campaign flyers. 

But Scanlon said he did not see those priorities as competing with efforts to slash revenues. 

“We have an abundance right now. We have to figure out how to use that abundance,” Scanlon said. “It’s not an either or. I very much care about tax relief for working class and middle class families and I think we can find a way to do that and meet our needs to make sure those same people have access to the health care and treatment they deserve.” 

Several speakers during Thursday’s press conference said they hoped policymakers would summon the political will to boost funding this year, despite years of failing to heed warnings from advocates and providers. Thomas Burr, community and affiliate relations manager at the Connecticut National Alliance on Mental Health, said the system was already in “imminent danger of collapse.”

“We are seeing the fallout from that in action right now. The entire behavioral health system in Connecticut is gridlocked and people can not get the services they so desperately need,” Burr said.