This opinion piece was submitted by RGJ columnist Sheila Leslie, who served in the Nevada Legislature from 1998 to 2012.
They came to listen, but ended up talking most of the time. And while there have been far too many tragic stories of deadly drug overdoses, suicide deaths, and untold suffering of people facing a behavioral health crisis, there was also hope that something could. be done to spare the next family the pain of a loved one’s descent into the dark from a serious mental illness or untreated addiction.
Invited by Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto to a Behavioral Health Roundtable, a bipartisan group of state and local politicians, mental health advocates, law enforcement officials, veterans and senior specialists, officials County and state crisis call staff and family members of those who have lost their lives due to a behavioral health crisis all had a lot to say. And the senator listened intently, asking insightful questions to further clarify the nuances of a complicated healthcare system that offers far too little, often too late.
In recent years, the number of inmates living with serious mental illness has nearly quadrupled at the Washoe County Jail, a senior sheriff official said. It is virtually impossible to get an appointment with a child psychiatrist without first hospitalizing a child, a family court judge reported. Our daughter struggled with behavioral health issues until one day she died by suicide, said a parent, who also questioned whether first responders in our community were getting the kind of emotional support they needed and which they deserved after regularly encountering such tragedies.
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Senator Cortez Masto and her staff took many notes and asked attendees to elaborate on the skills shortage, insurance concerns, and specific issues affecting seniors and veterans. The group spoke about the enormous need for affordable housing opportunities supported along a continuum, the lack of access to alternative therapies and the need for increased collaboration at all levels.
The roundtable was held at the downtown Reno offices of Crisis Support Services, formerly known as Crisis Call Center, a nonprofit agency with 54 years of experience connecting people in crisis with vital care. The agency maintains a 24/7 hotline and is one of nine national centers to accept nationwide crisis calls when a local number does not exist or is overcapacity.
By next summer, a new national crisis number will be operational for anyone experiencing a behavioral health crisis. People will be encouraged to dial 988 instead of 911 for assistance, such as an immediate response from the mobile team or just someone to connect with during a long dark night.
Senator Cortez Masto is sponsoring a bill with Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas to increase access to behavioral health care and ensure “every person in crisis receives the right answer in the right place, every time.” If approved by Congress, the Behavioral Health Crisis Services Expansion Act will set national standards for behavioral health crisis services, require crisis services insurance coverage by all types of health plans, lead the new Funding from the Mental Health Block Grant for Crisis Services, will provide federal technical assistance to communities to develop such care, and establish a best practice clearinghouse for communities to share successful ideas and services.
The bill does not cover all of the concerns raised by roundtable participants, but it is a good start. Without a comprehensive and responsive crisis system, many people will not transition to effective treatment or access the support system they need. But in such a divided political landscape, is there any hope that a number of filibustered senators will care enough about the problem to put aside their differences long enough to save lives?
Mental health issues and addictions are not partisan issues; they affect people of all ages, races and ethnicities, income levels, urban and rural, Republicans and Democrats. It is certainly a bill that can break the partisan deadlock in Washington. Otherwise, the devastating loss of life and the corresponding grief of family and friends will rest on our collective shoulders.
RGJ columnist Sheila Leslie served in the Nevada Legislature from 1998 to 2012.
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