A mental health crisis awaits us

988 is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s three-digit country code. (Photo by Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a stark reminder that the nation and our state face an alarming mental health crisis affecting men, women and children.

This week, U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, who represents much of Billerica, tabled a resolution in Congress that draws attention to this crisis that is impacting the physical, emotional and well-being of families, friends and communities. It is estimated that more than 70 million adults and children have a mental health problem, one in six adults suffers from depression, 110,000 people died of drug overdoses last year and the US surgeon general comes to announce that loneliness is now a serious mental health crisis. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that more than 55% of residents experience behavioral health issues. Unfortunately, Massachusetts mental health care providers are unable to keep up with the steep growth in the number of people needing help.

Behavioral therapists suffer from burnout after treating overwhelming numbers of existing patients seeking urgent care, which prevents new patients from receiving prompt treatment, often resulting in weeks or even months for an appointment .

Local hospital emergency departments are seeing an increase in the number of mental health patients requiring immediate assistance due to acute psychiatric episodes. Too often, these patients, young and old, are forced to wait in the emergency room for long periods of time before being transferred to an appropriate care facility.

Mental health experts believe that social media and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated feelings of sadness, anger, and drug and alcohol abuse, leading to a severe emotional crisis of violence, suicide, injury to self or others. As a result, municipal and suburban police departments are seeing a dramatic increase in 911 calls requesting urgent help for someone struggling with an acute mental health issue. A suburban police department near Boston reports that 50 to 60 percent of 911 calls last year were for officer assistance for residents struggling with behavioral health and substance abuse issues.

Police officers are the first to recognize that although they receive training on mental health crises at the police academy and as part of their continuing education, they are not the best equipped to deal effectively with people in distress mental.

It is gratifying to know that a growing number of Massachusetts police departments, including Lowell, are now collaborating and partnering with mental health clinicians who will accompany officers responding to a call for behavioral assistance. In my own town of Billerica, which has a population of 45,000, Police Chief Roy Frost is very proud to have a mental health clinician on hand to accompany officers when they receive a call for help.

Frost, entering his second year as police chief, understands that mental health and addictions are very important issues for the community, quality of life and public safety. By having a highly trained mental health clinician in partnership with his officers, the best level of emergency care is rendered to those who need it.

The Billerica program is part of a creative and innovative collaboration of police departments in Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Tyngsboro and Dracut and is funded by grants from the State Department of Mental Health.

As the mental health crisis continues to escalate in our region and state, it behooves Governor Maura Healey and the Legislature to seriously consider increasing funding to the Department of Mental Health so that the agency can provide even greater financial assistance to police services and the community. based mental health care providers as a way to create more programs and services that address this very serious issue.

Billerica’s Rick Pozniak served as director of healthcare communications and government affairs and communications advisor for the Mass. Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health established under the Dukakis administration.

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