WASHINGTON -- The push for expanded mental health services after the mass murders of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., has moved from Congress to the nation’s statehouses, where health care advocates hope growing tax revenues and renewed outrage over gun violence will lead lawmakers to boost funding for counseling.
While experts say a connection between mental illness and gun violence is tenuous, a string of deadly shootings by mentally ill gunmen has fueled calls to beef up affordable treatment options for people who might be dangerous to themselves and others.
States, reeling from faltering tax revenues and the end of enhanced Medicaid funding from the economic stimulus bill, cut a collective $4.4 billion from their mental health budgets from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
The cuts came just as the need for services was growing, with more people facing the emotional stress and financial uncertainty of job losses stemming from the Great Recession.
“It came down to sort of a tough choice,” said Ted Lutterman, the director of research analysis at the national association’s research institute in Alexandria, Va. “Do you close community-based crisis services, things that can help (mentally ill) people live in the community? Or do you close state hospital beds? A number of states did a mixture of both.”
South Carolina led the nation, cutting its mental health budget by 39 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The state mental health agency continued to provide services for 70,000 adults and 30,000 youths, “but they’re just not seeing them as often,” said Bill Lindsey, the executive director of the alliance’s South Carolina affiliate.
“A patient may be seeing a psychiatrist every four to six weeks, but now it’s 12 to 16 weeks between visits,” Lindsey said. “And in terms of new patients coming in, they’re only able to see the sickest of the sick.”
Other states made similar cuts. Alaska pared nearly $41 million, about one-third of its mental health services budget, from 2009 to 2012. Illinois cut $187 million, about 32 percent of its budget. Kansas trimmed more than 12 percent, or $12.4 percent of its budget, according to alliance figures.
The effects were devastating. An estimated 4,500 state psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated over that time, Lutterman said, and state mental health agencies across the country reduced staff, cut funding for community providers and served fewer people.
But the budget pressures that caused the cuts are easing. After increasing for the last 11 quarters, state tax revenue continues to rebound, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany. While tax receipts haven’t reached pre-recession levels, many states now have more budget flexibility than at any time since the recession officially ended in June 2009.
In the aftershock of Newtown, where 20 children and six adults were killed in December when a mentally ill gunman stormed the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Congress and the White House have emphasized better mental services, among other approaches, as one way to combat gun violence. As a result, mental health advocates are finding state lawmakers more open to boosting spending, even in states where budget-cutting Republicans have chafed at increasing state services.