N.J. Assn. of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies pushing for more funding in budget

Debra Wentz, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, is pushing for full funding of behavioral health services in the next budget — saying it will be critical to the state’s bottom line moving forward.

“The tremendous rise in demand for mental health care and addiction treatment services that is occurring during the pandemic is expected to continue long after the state of emergency is determined to be over,” she said.

Wentz made the push last Friday — just a few days before Gov. Phil Murphy makes his budget address, which he will do Tuesday at Rutgers University.

Wentz said community-based services for mental health, substance use disorders and intellectual/developmental disabilities have endured chronic underfunding for decades — and that the resulting challenges for children and adults in need of these critical services have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the trauma resulting from heightened awareness of social injustice.

Wentz said some providers have needed to reduce services due to limited funds also having to be used for new expenses, such as personal protective equipment for staff and clients, retrofitting of facilities to meet social distancing guidelines and additional cleaning and sanitizing supplies.

The need for services, however, is only going to increase moving forward, Wentz said.

“The demand for services has increased exponentially as a result of uncertainty, isolation, unemployment and loss stemming from the pandemic and the impact of social inequities, the trauma of which has resurfaced for many due to recent incidents of violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Color,” she said.

The NJAMHAA represents 144 organizations that annually serve more than 500,000 New Jersey residents with mental illness and/or substance use disorders, and their families. The group said recently reported statistics further underscore the critical need for both maintained and increased funding in the 20201 State Budget.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a report issued last week, 1 in 4 young adults between the ages of 18-24 reported having considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, and more than 40% of those surveyed indicated they have experienced a mental or behavioral health condition connected to the COVID-19 emergency.

Stress on families, including children, has increased significantly during the pandemic, the group said. For example, according to research published in Pediatrics, 27% of parents experienced mental health declines and 14% reported children’s worsened behavioral health since March.

Wentz said that many individuals with mental illnesses and SUDs have experienced worsening of these health conditions, and many others have developed these illnesses during the pandemic. Furthermore, the negative mental health impact of the crisis will be long-lasting for many people, and symptoms may not surface for several more months.

“New Jersey’s budget must maintain funding for behavioral health services for all children and adults with disabilities and increase funding to cover additional safety-related costs that providers have incurred, and to expand capacity to meet the growing need,” she said.

“If sufficient funding is not provided, tens of thousands of individuals will not receive treatment or will seek it in emergency rooms. This preventable outcome will cost the state tens of thousands of dollars more than the highly effective community-based services.”

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