Mental health levy crucial

Over the last decade the Washington County Behavioral Health Board has watched with growing alarm as shrinking state and federal appropriations and growing needs have made it increasingly difficult to strengthen mental health and substance use disorder services. The board understands that more revenue is required to meet three challenges: the state mandate (1) to upgrade prevention and treatment programs; (2) to develop recovery services and facilities that help people suffering mental illness and substance abuse to move back into the community; and (3) to combat the opioid epidemic sweeping Ohio and the rest of the nation.

In the summer of 2016 the board decided to place a levy proposal on the Nov. 7, 2017 ballot. Being taxpayers themselves, the board’s staff and volunteer members calculated the lowest millage that could meet the growing needs of the county: a five-year, half-mill levy. Under this half-mill levy, a property appraised at $100,000 and assessed at $35,000 would add $17.50 per year to the tax bill, a cost of about 5 cents a day.

The board is aware that the $737,000 generated annually by the levy must be allocated and monitored with care. The levy plan must address both mental illness and substance abuse and the needs of all age groups: infants, children and adolescents as well as young, middle-aged, and senior adults. The levy funds must be used (1) to expand certain current services; (2) to restore worthwhile services eliminated by past revenue cuts; (3) to add programs that would fill serious gaps in the current range of services; (4) in the future, to pick up funding for successful services when start-up grants expire; and (5) to financially assist people needing treatment who do not qualify for Medicaid but who cannot afford the high cost of health insurance or copays. The goal of the levy is to create, sustain, and make available to a larger number of people a more comprehensive program in prevention; intervention; treatment; and recovery.

Prevention and Early Intervention. Early detection of mental illness and prevention of substance abuse have traditionally been a priority of the Behavioral Health Board. The board has helped to fund the efforts not only of the Suicide Prevention Coalition but also those of EVE Inc. and The Right Path who help young people make responsible choices and steer away from substance abuse and possible addiction. Levy revenues would allow expansion of valuable school prevention programs so as to reach all grade levels in a greater number of schools. Levy funding would permit more awareness education for parents, extended family, teachers, and other mentors who would then be alert to early signs of mental illness or substance abuse and know what to do about it. Of major importance, levy funding could assist all schools in acquiring the services of specialized counselors who would work with at risk children and adolescents, including those from substance abusing families and families where mental illness creates disruption. Levy funds might also permit the hiring of a prevention coordinator who would oversee the expansion and maintenance of a strong county-wide prevention program in the schools. Bolstering prevention and early intervention would be a major outcome of levy funding.

Treatment and Intervention. Of critical importance in combating mental illness and substance use disorders is the need to move a person into treatment quickly. For many people suffering from substance abuse, the first phase of treatment is detoxification. Levy funds would be used to move more people into detox in a more timely manner. Following detox, persons with substance use disorders must immediately transition into the next treatment phase, extended therapy. Staffing shortages make this difficult. Levy funding could be used to help service providers hire additional therapists thereby reducing the length of time persons would have to wait to enter therapeutic treatment. An adequate number of therapists would moreover allow for more attention to be given to more people. This in turn would make it more likely that people would stay in therapy long enough for the treatment to take hold. An important means of keeping people in a treatment program and away from environments which encourage drug abuse or worsen mental illness is to provide residential treatment facilities. Levy funds could be used to create much needed residential settings. In all phases of treatment, a levy could provide the financial help to those whose level of income disqualifies them from Medicaid but who cannot afford the high cost of health insurance or copays.

Recovery and Rehabilitation. Settling back into the community and workforce can be the outcome for many people recovering from mental illness or substance abuse. Currently the House of Hope and Oxford House are local facilities that serve this purpose. The board, however, realizes the need to expand recovery programs and sees levy funds playing a key role in creating (1) supportive independent living services and housing — including a women’s recovery house; (2) peer mentoring which allows people who have advanced well into recovery to help others who are at earlier stages; and (3) critically important job training and placement services which help people take a final step back into the community.

Approval of the five-year, half-mill mental health levy will allow the Washington County Behavioral Health Board to implement the program of service and facility improvements discussed here. Please vote “Yes” on Nov. 7 and help provide our county with the mental health and substance use disorder program it deserves.

Charles Pridgeon was a member of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board from 2003 to 2017. Behavioral Health Matters appears monthly on The Marietta Times Opinion page.