New mental health initiative announced by Welfare Dept.

Mental health issues are gathering a growing interest at the state level in Pennsylvania.

On May 10, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) announced the launch of a new initiative aimed at combating the stigma attached to mental illness. Meanwhile, just four days later on May 14, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives adopted a resolution directing the Joint State Government Commission to conduct a comprehensive study of the state’s mental health system and laws.

“This is really a bipartisan issue,” State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) said. “There are concerns from a wide range of individuals.”

According to the DPW announcement, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that one in four people will experience a diagnosable mental illness.

The initial phase of the campaign, dubbed “Mental Health Matters”, will consist of efforts to raise awareness and provide support for other initiatives.

“There are lots of myths and misconceptions around mental illness,” Acting Secretary of Public Welfare Beverly Mackereth said in the announcement. “Mental disorders are real and treatable. Individuals living with mental illness and their families need to know what help is available and not be afraid to reach out for it.”

Some initiatives the “Mental Health Matters” campaign aims to support include mental health first aid training, families as first responders awareness and reducing suicide rates among veterans.

“Pennsylvania is a national role model in its innovative efforts to target various mental health disorders, investing nearly $3.8 billion per year for a wide continuum of mental health services,” Mackereth said in the announcement. “With ‘Mental Health Matters’, we will build upon the state’s commitment to individuals seeking behavioral health solutions and increase awareness of where, when and how they and their families can seek help.”

House Resolution 226, meanwhile, aims at taking a comprehensive look at improving how the state handles mental illness.

The resolution is sponsored by House Minority Judiciary Committee Chairman Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks) and garnered 24 additional sponsors, including seven Republicans. The measure was passed unanimously.

“I’m excited to work with the chairman of judiciary… to try to help individuals struggling with mental illness,” Rapp, a co-sponsor of the bill said. “I’m working with Rep. Caltagirone… we met with the secretary of corrections and the secretary of public welfare on how we should proceed and the issues we want to look at. Both secretaries are committed. Our goal, really, is to maybe form a task force.”

A May 15 press release from Rapp’s office cites recent Pennsylvania Department of Corrections estimates indicating 40 percent of female inmates and 20 percent of male inmates suffer from serious mental illness.

“To see so many people with mental illness ending up in our prisons is really raising a lot of red flags,” Rapp said.

According to the release, Rapp and Caltagirone discussed “the undeniable connection between mental illness and crime and agreed to have further conversations” during their meeting with Secretary of Public Welfare Beverly Mackereth and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

“Conducting this study is long overdue, especially considering Pennsylvania’s current Mental Health Procedures Act which governs the state’s regulations and procedures relating to the mental health treatment of inmates is more than 35 years old,” Rapp said in the release. “With such antiquated and inadequate regulations, it is little wonder that our state and county correctional facilities are extremely overcrowded and the state is incarcerating tens of thousands of inmates with a mental health diagnosis.”

Rapp’s release also noted Mackereth expressed willingness to once again visit Warren State Hospital. Mackereth took part in a discussion at the hospital on mental health issues last month at Rapp’s request.

“I invited the secretary to visit the facility and see first-hand that there is an opportunity to serve more patients,” Rapp said in the release. “We want to make sure that as many patients as possible receive the care they need instead of falling through the cracks or, even worse, committing a crime and ending up in our prison system. If we treat patients at facilities like Warren State Hospital where the proper care is available, we don’t have to worry about them landing in prison, which represents significantly increased taxpayer costs and is not the optimal place for treatment.”

Rapp pointed out her expectations for the study in the release as well saying, “Moving forward, it is my hope that the comprehensive study authorized by this resolution will give us even more facts to address this critical issue impacting not only our criminal justice and health care systems, but our entire economy.”