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Mental health care not luxury

Recently, I’ve been getting an unusually large number of phone calls from folks concerned about the state of our mental health systems in Indiana. I’m often asked what can we do to make the systems work better.

I am the director of the Carriage House in Fort Wayne, an internationally recognized and evidence-based program working with adults who have serious mental illnesses. They include people with diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, among others.

Usually, when people call, I get to respond with incredible stories of resilience and recovery. I get to share how treatment works and how our non-traditional program is so successful.

I get to tell stories about the hundreds of people who have gone back to work and school, moved into better places and stayed out of the hospital.

These kinds of outcomes benefit the entire community and change the lives of individuals and families. In addition, they reduce health care costs and keep taxpayer dollars from being spent needlessly on more expensive kinds of care.

But when talk turns to the larger mental health system – and mental health funding – responding is less enjoyable. That’s because it’s not working here in Indiana. The last couple of years have seen dramatic cuts to a system that was already underfunded. Effective programs such as the Carriage House receive support from private donors, but no longer receive any government support and are in danger of closing. Most other providers have cut critical programs and laid off staff.

Addressing these larger systemic issues is challenging. It can seem pretty overwhelming even to those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about it. But one thing is clear: Mental illness is now more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. We are all affected by mental illness, and it’s going to take all of us to ensure that those who need assistance get help.

I would love to be able to say that we could fix the funding issue simply by being more efficient, but this isn’t the case. Providers across the state have already cut costs and services to levels that make providing comprehensive, effective treatment impossible.

The hard truth is that we have spent decades removing money from mental health treatment. To address the mental health crisis in Indiana, we’re going to have to prioritize putting it back.

Every day I meet wonderful, compassionate people who ask what they can do to help. Here are a couple of ideas:

•Talk to your legislators at the Indiana Statehouse. Let them know that funding for mental health is a priority – not a luxury. We simply cannot continue to underfund mental health.

•If you are able, donate to the Carriage House or another agency struggling to help those most in need.

It is possible to ensure that everyone with a serious mental illness is getting help. It is within our grasp to have effective, evidence-based treatment available for all Hoosiers. This goal is challenging, but it is not vague and not insurmountable. Please join us in making it a reality.

Andy Wilson is executive director of Carriage House. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.