Newtown Shooting Raises Questions About Mental Health Funding

Dec 20, 2012

Little information is available yet to conclude whether the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut was diagnosed with or treated for mental illness. But last week’s incident has raised questions around the country about mental health--specifically, funding for mental health treatment and services. Ruby de Luna looks at how Washington’s mental health services have fared over the years.

Amnon Schoenfeld has worked in the mental health field for more than thirty years. In all that time, Schoenfeld says it’s always been underfunded. Schoenfeld is director of King County’s Mental Health Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services. The agency provides outpatient treatment primarily for people on Medicaid, and low income people. Schoenfeld says in recent years the situation has been very challenging.

Starting in 2009 state lawmakers made major cuts in both mental health and substance abuse services. To date, funding has been slashed by more than 15 percent. At the same time, demand for services grew by 40 percent. These budget cuts meant people are getting less attention because case managers are spread thin. Many programs that keep people out of hospital were cut, too.

Schoenfeld: “Things like crisis respite beds for people in crisis, crisis diversion, hospital diversion beds, homeless outreach and stabilization services, some of our residential treatment beds we’ve had to close down. Next day appointments for people who are in crisis, we’ve had to reduce the number of slots available.”

King County has filled some of the funding gaps. In 2007 the county council raised the sales tax to pay for outpatient mental health and substance abuse services. That levy expires in 2016.

Schoenfeld says funding is important to make sure people get the help they need. But just as crucial, is removing the stigma of mental illness.

Schoenfeld: “The stigma is so destructive because that it keeps people from seeking treatment because of the way people are going to perceive them.”

Schoenfeld says he’s relieved to see in the governor’s budget proposal that no cuts have been planned for mental health. But that could change when the legislature convenes, and the new governor takes office in January.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio