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Opinion: Mental health support comes up short in state budget

A local state representative who has suffered the consequences of depression contends that Pennsylvania needs to make a greater investment in mental health.

Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, House Democratic Caucus chairman, has become one of the General Assembly’s fiercest supporters of mental health funding and advocacy to fight the ravages of this debilitating condition that he has experienced personally, according to his accounts about depression in a book he wrote in 2018 entitled “Redemption.”

Schlossberg said nearly 2 million Pennsylvania adults struggle with a mental health condition, but he says the sad part is that the overwhelming majority do not live in a community with sufficient mental health professionals.

One in four Pennsylvanians experiencing homelessness has a serious mental illness, and one in four adults with a serious mental illness has been arrested, according to Schlossberg. The mental health problem in the state leads to 2,000 Pennsylvanians taking their own lives each year, he said.

The proposed $45 billion 2023-24 state budget, which is at an impasse in the General Assembly awaiting technical approval by the state Senate, falls short in funding for mental and behavioral health, Schlossberg contends. He believes a greater investment needs to be made to deal with the consequences of mental health illnesses, just as the budget proposes to make historic support for education, community safety initiatives and economic development.

Schlossberg and other supporters of mental health initiatives lament that the $100 million that would have come from the American Rescue Plan Act for mental health programs is not included in the budget proposal.

“To create this enabling legislation, we worked tirelessly with our friends across the aisle, mental and behavioral health experts, and advocates for over a year to reach an agreement on House Bill 849,” said Schlossberg, prime sponsor of the legislation. Despite the approval, the funding was not included in the Senate’s version of the final budget proposal; rather, the funding was redirected to school mental health assistance. The approved House measure also has the backing of Rep. Stephen Rinsey, D-Philadelphia, majority chairman of the House Human Services Committee.

This redirection of funding change has “failed the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians struggling with mental and behavioral health disorders, the families of those struggling with the loss of their loved ones to suicide, the dwindling underpaid and overworked mental health workforce, our criminal justice system, our local law enforcement and people who should be in treatment rather than behind bars,” Schlossberg said.

In reflecting on his own experience with depression, which he experienced seriously while a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown in 2001, Schlossberg said, “I had been sad before, but never like this. It was a hopelessness that felt like a black cloud smothering everything I did,” he recalled.

The tragic suicide death of comedian/actor Robin Williams in 2014 because of depression was a major factor in persuading Schlossberg, by that time a freshman member of the state House of Representatives, to share his experiences publicly. “My point is this: Millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, and millions recover. There is no shame in saying you are depressed, you are anxious, and you need help,” he said.

To call attention to the situation and to lobby for the passage of House Bill 849, Schlossberg and Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery-Bucks, were joined by fellow legislators, mental health professionals and advocates last Thursday calling for the funding to be restored in this year’s budget.

“If you are in pain, there are so many who want to help, to be a voice, to be that light in the darkness. As so many, including me, can testify, as long as you breathe, there is hope,” Schlossberg said.

By BRUCE FRASSINELLI| tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.