I posted a message about addiction being “an illness; not a character flaw” on social media recently. In response someone posted the question: “What’s next, Jim?”
Well, we know Indiana has been battling a mental health crisis for years. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I am happy to report that there are signs of hope.
In the past, Hoosiers in crisis didn’t know where to turn. Many suffering from mental illness or substance abuse would end up in jail and be punished without receiving adequate treatment. But the root cause is not addressed: mental illness.
Finally, we are seeing a noticeable shift toward prevention and treatment, shifting away from punishment. This effort is being led by individual communities across the state. They are implementing all-encompassing treatment programs which raise awareness of options available to citizens in need, treat patients on a case-by-case basis and move them toward recovery.
One local community making steps is the city of Columbus, Bartholomew County and the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress. After identifying that substance abuse was one of the biggest problems in the community, the local government began collaborating with agencies in the area, like health care providers, law enforcement and recovery centers, as well as with those with life experiences suffering with addiction to create a holistic plan to extend services to the people who need them. They recognized it takes everyone to solve the problem.
While the state has taken some steps, it has unfortunately been a case of two steps forward and one step back when it comes to addressing the mental health crisis. This last legislative session saw this play out again. The state took a step back, when it passed House Enrolled Act 1300, which restricts organizations providing resources including referrals to mental health services for some people arrested.
Meanwhile the same legislature made steps forward when it passed and then Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Enrolled Act 1222. HEA 1222 will set the table for a behavioral health infrastructure in both the community and criminal justice arenas. Thank you to Mental Health America of Indiana as well as Indiana Rep. Cindy Ziemke, Rep. Ann Vermilion and Sen. Mike Crider for their efforts. The Division of Mental Health and Addiction along with the governor deserve accolades as well for this major step forward.
HEA 1222 will serve as a catalyst for expanded access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment services throughout our state. The central focus of HEA 1222 are programs called Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. MHAI President and CEO Steve McCaffrey said these clinics are built to provide comprehensive services to vulnerable individuals with an emphasis on 24-hour crisis care, evidence-based practices and simulation with physical health care. The current 18 pilot programs of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in our state are experiencing success.
Additionally, Holcomb announced the launch of Be Well Indiana, a resource for anyone in the state to be immediately connected with health professionals in their community. We are taking steps forward by using the reach of a statewide awareness campaign to direct Hoosiers to a local treatment facility with individualized programs.
Finally, one additional step that we badly need to take is focus on collecting data. The data gathered by programs, like behavioral health clinics, is invaluable for legislators in determining where to invest in programs. This is the data that is lacking when it comes to criminal justice, and data that could ensure that our tax dollars are spent in ways that address the root causes of crime and focus on reducing them. I urge the legislature to focus on data during the interim and identify what data is needed and where or who can provide it. When we have a full picture of the problem, we can begin to adequately address it.
The hashtag used by MHAI is #MentalHealthIsHealth. The mission of treating mental illness just like another health problem is exactly where we should be going in Indiana. We are taking a step forward now.
Jim Merritt is a former Indiana state senator, serving District 31 for 30 years.