Mental health advocates in Georgia say lack of access to care is the cause of the crises

The Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership is comprised of 14 organizations that represent the majority of Georgia’s mental health and substance abuse peers, consumers, their families, and their allies, Jeff Breedlove of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse said.

The 2022 Unified Vision for Transforming Mental Health and Addiction Care in Georgia is part of a multi-year legislative process. Last year, Unified Vision called for improved access to mental health care as the state grappled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, Georgia has risen from the bottom to 48th in access to mental health care.

MORE: Georgia improves its mental health ranking — based on data collected before COVID. But challenges remain

Attention not only from behavioral health advocacy groups, but also from lawmakers, including state House Speaker David Ralston, led to the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act.

Now advocates want more funding to expand programs that have proven to work.

“We need to focus on peer-centered recovery programs,” Breedlove said. “Bill 1013 was the beginning, not the end. There’s still a lot more work to be done on parity to make sure government agencies interpret it with legislative intent, to make sure we continue to build a peer-led workforce, and to make sure we take emergency crisis and response even further.”

The largest provider of psychiatric services in Georgia is its criminal justice system. County jails are overflowing with people who have not properly provided them with access to mental health care, state Rep. Greg Kennard (D-Lawrenceville) said last year.

“You could make an argument that we are criminalizing mental health,” he said.

A lack of funding means many rural Georgia areas can’t even afford to participate in a pilot program for first responders, Breedlove said.

The Georgia Council on Substance Abuse aims to work with the state to expand the Recovery Community Organizations program, which is an independent, nonprofit organization run by local recovery communities.

These organizations organize recovery policy advocacy events, conduct recovery-oriented education and outreach programs, and/or provide recovery support services.

“We have 40 of them in Georgia, but 40 is not enough to serve 159 counties,” Breedlove said.

About 49 percent of Georgia high school students reported experiencing severe anxiety, 40 percent said they experienced depression, and 11 percent reported intentionally harming themselves in the past year, according to Unified Vision.

Peter Nunn, a member of the board of directors for the Georgia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the three fundamental elements of the Single Vision are:

  • Early detection and prevention
  • Workforce
  • Parity

Inadequate provider networks are a major problem for each of these three elements, Nunn said. Insurance provider networks are an important bridge between obtaining insurance coverage and accessing care, but many insurance companies point to a general lack of behavioral health providers in an attempt to justify their inadequate networks, Nunn said.

RELATED: With few other resources, people with behavioral health problems find treatment in prisons

“This action, however, is nothing more than a verbal ploy used by insurers to deflect attention from what appear to be willful breaches by insurers of their network adequacy obligations,” Nunn said, citing an actuarial firm study that found that children in Georgia were more than 10 times more likely to have to go out of the network for behavioral treatment than they have to go out of network for general health care.

Nunn said that’s because insurers have inadequate networks providers of psychological services for children in Georgia.

“We’re going to ask the state to expand existing mental health programs and addiction services that they know are already working,” Breedlove said.

This story comes to Reporter Newspapers / Atlanta Intown in partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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