Recent news stories from Georgia and elsewhere are helping raise awareness of two of the biggest challenges facing our mental health system – access to services and workforce – and how the two are inexorably linked.

While these challenges are not new, the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic have added a new sense of urgency. Georgia lawmakers will have a vital role in addressing these issues. Reviewing the recent news shows why action is critical.

On Nov. 1, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities – Georgia’s state-level behavioral health agency – issued a news release with the headline “Georgia prepares for increased demand for mental health crisis services.” The release focused on the state’s plans to activate a 9-8-8 mental health crisis line next year, part of a national initiative to make 9-8-8 the mental health 9-1-1.

But if 9-8-8 will make it easier for Georgians to reach help in a mental health crisis, the mental health system’s ability to meet increased demand might remain a challenge. A Nov. 13 article in the Union-Recorder, the local paper in Milledgeville, Georgia, laments how the pandemic has made recruiting mental health therapists and other key staff even more difficult than before.

Georgia is hardly alone in this. A Nov. 10 report from radio station WBFO, the public radio affiliate in Buffalo, New York, says that state’s mental health workforce is ‘on life support’ and state lawmakers must provide additional funds to help retain experienced workers.

The same day, an article in the Gloucester (MA) Daily Times lauded a plan by the state senate for funding that would increase the mental health workforce pipeline and require insurers to cover an annual mental health check-up as part of primary care wellness visits.

If it seems as though mental health providers are always asking for more money, there is a very good reason. Georgia’s mental health safety net – the 23 community service boards like Highland Rivers Health that serve those who are uninsured, low-income or have Medicaid – simply can’t meet the demand for services without more funding. That’s been true since before the pandemic.

The fact is, Highland Rivers Health, like the state’s other CSBs, just can’t compete with wages mental health therapists can make in the private sector. Further, Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services – which are the majority of reimbursements CSBs receive – are lower than those from private insurers.

The result is that Georgia’s behavioral health safety net constantly struggles to retain the workforce needed to meet the needs of Georgia residents, needs which are increasing daily.

That’s why an article in the Nov. 12 edition of Georgia Health News – published in news outlets across Georgia – has created such a hopeful stir. Under the headline “Lawmakers reach across the aisle, call 2022 ‘the year of mental health,’” the story reports on a press conference at the Capitol in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers and behavioral health advocates unveiled a blueprint for increasing mental healthcare in Georgia.

Among the proposals are legislative fixes – increased use of telehealth, insurance parity for mental health services – as well as increased funding to help grow and retain Georgia’s behavioral health workforce, something that is absolutely critical. As noted by Rep. Terry England, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, the shortage of trained practitioners hamstrings efforts to ramp up services.

What will ultimately come of these proposals when the legislature convenes in January remains to be seen. But we can no longer imagine we will be able to meet the mental health needs of Georgians without significant additional resources. If the current news is not good, the fact these issues are coming to the forefront makes me hopeful.

As Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick said at the press conference, “I think this is going to be a big legislative year for mental health. So stay tuned.” Indeed we will.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 12-county region of Northwest Georgia.

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