Local group hopes their event will help lawmakers see the shortcomings of mental health care in New Mexico
By Simon McCormack
Mental health care is a community issue people seldom talk about. Yet, this week, it will be a majot topic of discussion.
The Bernalillo County Local Collaborative (BCLC) would like to see some major changes with regards to mental health care. Their first step is to make sure legislators have an opportunity to listen.
To this end, the collaborative is hosting a “legislative meet and greet” that’s open to the public and, the group says, will include more than 100 mental health recipients, providers, politicians and advocates from around the state.
“We hope we can create ties with legislators and policy makers,” says Sarah Couch, co-chair of the BCLC and a mental health care recipient. “I think in the past we’ve felt like there was a core group of us doing all the work and that other people wanted to help but didn’t know how,” says Leigh Mason, the BCLC coordinator. “With this meeting, I think people will get a better idea of what’s being done and what needs to be done.”
The BCLC was formed after a bill was passed during last year’s Legislative Session that mandated that all counties in New Mexico have their own mental health collaborative. In their relatively short existence, BCLC members know they have an uphill battle ahead of them.
“I think the state of mental health care in New Mexico is really poor,” says Couch. Mason adds, “A lot of people think if they have insurance, public health doesn’t affect them, but it does. For just one example, if there’s a long waiting list to see a psychiatrist, then people start going to their primary care physician for psychiatric issues and that has an effect on everyone’s health care experience.”
Civil rights lawyer and BCLC Co-Chair Peter Cubra notes that a 2002 state-funded study conducted by the Technical Assistance Collaborative, an independent research group, found the state was funded at about 50 percent of what it needs to adequately provide mental health services to New Mexicans.
At least one state legislator agrees that more funding is necessary. “Quite simply, we have a huge gap in the number of mental health services and programs and the number of people that need them,” says Sen. Dede Feldman.
In addition to proposing that an additional $13.25 million be spent on mental health care in this next legislative session, the BCLC also plans to voice their opposition to Kendra’s Law, which was proposed in last year's Legislative Session and would require mandatory mental health services for the severely mentally handicapped. “If it’s proposed, we’ll be fighting that. We want to avoid a situation where someone is being given a shot of psychotropic medication with very serious potential side effects and sent on their way,” says parent of an autistic child and BCLC Co-Chair Gay Finlayson.
“Our goal is to have enough resources available to people that they will actually seek treatment, because studies have shown--and it’s been my own personal experience--that treatment that is mandatory doesn’t work,” Couch asserts. Finally, Mason points out that the previous version of the bill mandating care didn’t have any funding behind it. “You can’t force people to get services that don’t exist,” Mason says.
Although there is clearly much work to be done, for the members of BCLC, the creation of the collaborative was a powerful first step. “Until now, I’ve never been a part of a group of people that understood what it was like to have absolutely nothing in the way of help for the services you needed,” Finlayson says. “I give [the BCLC] a lot of credit for really trying its best to be inclusive of all people with behavioral health needs and making sure everyone has a voice.”
The BCLC’s Legislative Meet and Greet will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 22, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Church at Comanche and Carlisle. To RSVP (which is not mandatory but is appreciated), e-mail Sarah Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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