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Sunday, 01 April 2018 23:10

Gun violence puts spotlight on underfunded mental health organizations

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Gun violence puts spotlight on underfunded mental health organizations Courtesy Photo

GRAND RAPIDS — Calls for action and change typically follow each mass shooting, but the voices advocating for increased mental health services are becoming almost as loud and persistent as those seeking gun reform.

Leaders of area nonprofit mental health organizations say they are cautiously optimistic about increased funding coming their way after facing persistent cuts to their budgets.

“I’m hopeful that these tragic events will shine a light on a system that’s underfunded,” said Scott Gilman, executive director of Network 180, the community mental health authority for Kent County. “This issue, along with opioid crisis, uses the same bucket of money. We’re flooded with people who need treatment for opioids and people who are suicidal. While it’s tragic, it’s great if it can bring attention to a national problem.”

Network 180 has a total budget of $140 million that will be reduced by $10 million because of cuts to its sole source of funding: Medicaid. These reductions will affect prevention programs such as outreach to the Hispanic and Native American communities.

“We are actually having to look at borrowing money to finish out the year,” Gilman said.

Despite this, Network 180 is concentrating on getting more services into schools focused on early detection and prevention. Gilman said his staff is working locally through Kent County schools to get services out on the frontlines to screen students and get them into treatment when there’s a problem.

However, he cautions against placing the blame for mass shootings squarely on individuals with mental illness. He said national statistics show that about 4 percent of gun-related deaths are attributed to people with mental illness.

“I think it’s easy to get the focus off from the gun debate by pointing to the mental health debate,” Gilman said. “Funding for mental health has never been adequate for the demand we have, and what scares me is that this stigmatizes mental illnesses. I think it’s a diversionary tactic and it takes the focus off of the real issue, which is guns and not mental health.”

Michigan’s Specialty Behavioral Health System has a total annual budget of $3.2 billion. Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, said it remains “unknown at this time” if additional funds will be available to address this specific mental health issue.

“Tragedies often spark calls for changes in funding or programming,” Sutfin said. 

Still, Christy Buck, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, said she remains hopeful for an increase in funding and a continued focus on identifying and working with people who present a danger to others.

Buck cites a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill unveiled in late March by Congress that boosts federal health spending by $10.1 billion, providing increases for programs like Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, Opioid State Targeted Response Grants, Mental Health First Aid and mental health and substance abuse block grants.

“I want to be positive,” Buck said. “I think that what we’re seeing and hearing is that not as many things are going to be removed. The Department of Education is keeping afterschool programs because it’s not just about going somewhere to school, it’s about consistency and being connected. Out of a tragedy, we’re going to have to be hopeful.”

The Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan has a budget of about $600,000. Although the organization began offering programming in 2006 with funds from a federal block grant, it now operates with private donations.

“We need to be creative. We try as best we can to collaborate and work with as many people as we can,” Buck said. “With an increase in funding, hopefully people will see the need for more mental health workers in school buildings.”

Another critical piece is helping people find community resources. Buck said if a family undergoes such life-altering changes as losing their home, it affects children in different ways and on different levels.

Currently, no programming exists that’s directly tied to identifying individuals who have the potential to become mass shooters. Network 180’s Gilman said he’s unsure what such a program would look like.

A national initiative called Mental Health First Aid offered at the local level helps people recognize signs or symptoms when someone is having issues and connects them to resources designed to help. Another tool is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which gives health providers information about how that exposure can affect an individual as an adult.

“A lot of times when people have mental health problems, people know,” Gilman said. “It’s not like a heart attack. Everybody knows what to do when someone has a heart attack, but we want people to have the skills and knowledge to know what to do when people have mental health issues.

“We’re going to have to do research that points back to what exactly is causing it. If anybody says we know and we have the answer, that’s something to be suspicious of.”

Sutfin said it is “unknown at this time” if training will be made available to individuals so that they can better identify people who pose a potential danger to their communities.

“We already have in place several programs that synchronize mental health expertise with local law enforcement agencies for crisis intervention and other risk mitigation and jail diversion activities,” she said.

Until actual funding materializes to create programming and services designed to prevent individuals from creating chaos in a community, mental health leaders such as Buck and Gilman said they will do the best they can with what is currently available to them.

Rather than waiting to see if additional funding becomes a reality, Buck said her organization has been promoting its “Be Nice” grassroots initiative, which is a positive anti-bullying campaign designed to spread awareness about the issue and the importance of treating people with civility.

Buck pushes it because she believes the program works.

“Everything with mental health needs to start at an earlier age,” she said, noting the need for additional supports and resources, such as more case managers in schools. 

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