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The legislative breakfast held annually by mental health advocates from the Triangle draws a record number of lawmakers to hear concerns and get an earful.
By Rose Hoban
Fifteen members of the General Assembly gathered early one Saturday morning in April in Chapel Hill to meet with people with mental health problems, their family members and advocates in preparation for the legislative session that begins May 15.
Though organizers of the Mental Health Legislative Breakfast, coordinated by Mental Health America of the Triangle, usually primarily invite lawmakers from Orange, Durham and Wake counties to the annual event, this year legislators from as far as Charlotte and Asheboro drove in to hear from advocates and mental health consumers.
The lawmakers also opened themselves up for questions and, at times, criticism from the crowd of 300 at the Friday Center on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.
The event is co-sponsored by a coterie of local mental health organizations, including chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Health.
“We want to be your partners as we move forward,” Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) told the crowd during his keynote address. Dollar, who serves on the Joint Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, also acts as one of the main budget writers for that section of the state expenditures.
Dollar told the crowd that the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, starting July 1, will be challenging. He said lawmakers will continue to focus on parts of the mental health budget such as financing for mental health beds in community hospitals rather than considering building a new state psychiatric facility.
He also expressed support for the new Medicaid reform plan and the continued consolidation of mental health management organizations from 10 regional agencies down to four, and praised the McCrory administration’s focus on supporting mental health crisis services.
What drew the loudest applause from audience members though was Dollar’s support of Durham’s Wright School, a residential facility for elementary school-aged children with severe emotional and behavioral health problems.
“For some strange reason, the Wright School always seems to come up as one of those things that, well, you know, maybe we should eliminate this in the budget. But I took a liking to the Wright School,” Dollar said to applause.
“The reason why I took an interest in the Wright School is because I have seen results.”
Dollar said he had family friends with a child who had been helped at the facility and recounted going to the school for its annual reunion:
“I had occasion to talk to some of those individuals to see what has happened 20 or 30 years later, how they are now productive and have families and are contributing members of the community doing every other normal job like everyone else.”
“It’s a very holistic approach to treatment and, if anything, some day when we are not so crunched on our budget we may have the opportunity to have more Wright Schools around the state,” Dollar said.
Dollar’s support for the Wright School was echoed by Linda McDonough, the mother of a young woman with severe developmental, mental health and behavioral problems who found success at Wright School.
McDonough told of how she was frustrated and “crazy” by the time her adopted daughter Brianna was admitted to the facility, but how staff there “truly treated me with respect and understanding.”
“Wright School is an amazing place,” said McDonough, who said her daughter has not had a successful placement since she completed a year at the Wright School because of her multiple emotional and behavioral problems.
After her presentation, McDonough said part of what she was trying to do in her speech was let lawmakers see the benefit of the place.
“What they do there works. But every two years, they have to fight to keep it open,” she said.
McDonough took a half hour to recount all the ways she had been frustrated in trying to find help for Brianna, who is currently at Central Regional Hospital in Butner. All the while, she clicked through a slide show showing a playful and smiling Brianna.
“Our whole table was tearing up,” listening to McDonough speak, said Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Raleigh) a few days later. “I think the juxtaposition was very powerful and I think that was part of what was causing so much of the emotional reaction.”
McDonough said the contrast created by the photos and her speech was intentional.
“I want legislators to understand that their decisions have impact on human beings,” she said. “And as they’re cutting funds and making decisions, they’re not saving money. It costs $1,200 a day for Brianna to be in Butner. She’s been there for eight months because there’s no programs for her to go to.”
McDonough also said the biennial fight over funding the school is nothing new. The Wright School has often found itself on the chopping block under Democrats as well as Republicans.
A panel of three Republican and three Democratic legislators spent an hour and a half fielding questions from the audience on topics ranging from Medicaid to housing for people with mental health problems to substance abuse-treatment funding. Several members of the panel shared stories of family members with mental health issues.
(Note: This reporter participated in moderating questions from the audience.)
“It felt so futile to deal with the mental situation with someone who’s close to you,” said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Concord), recounting his mother’s struggles with depression when she was younger. “She’s now 93 years old. She survived the system, but we’re here for us to deal with our own children.”
“We need to make some tremendous investments in our children’s programs,” said Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill), who suggested taking some dollars from high-end programs and investing them in mental health prevention programs.
“There is a way to shift some money if we look at the ABC system,” she said, noting that some part of each county’s revenues from ABC stores is supposed to be designated for mental health funding.
Some differences among lawmakers fell along predictable party lines. However, the consensus among them was that there would not be many new dollars for mental health in the coming budget. Instead, the conversation turned toward how the mental health system could be made more effective by removing layers of bureaucracy.
“What we have to do is integrate services and personalize them,” Hartsell said. “Which is to say, we need to go back to the basics; which is to say, we provide services to people. That’s what counties exist for; they are supposed to provide human services from the state on the local level.”
But instead, Hartsell said, often county bureaucracy exists simply in order to propagate itself.
“We have too many cities, we have too many counties, we have too many health departments, we have too many of virtually everything,” he said.
Insko expressed concern that with the consolidation of mental health local management entities down to four large regional organizations, local input would be lost.
“I would rather see nine or 10, so the management actually does know the providers personally,” Insko said.
In the end, all the lawmakers urged the people in attendance to contact them, express their concerns and tell their stories.
“Partner with your local [legislators], and do so in this regard: Do not make a judgment as to who is going to be your ally and who isn’t,” Barringer told the crowd. “It’s not gender specific; it’s not party specific. Tell your story; become real to us. You’ve become real to me.”