I am a member of the Prevention, Harm Reduction and Intervention subcommittee established by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Governing Commission, which oversees the Behavioral Health Initiative. The people selected for committees include community members who are living with mental illness, their family members, and other people with experience with what has passed for a mental health system in Bernalillo County. It is the lack of a system that the Behavioral Health Initiative, which 69 percent of voters approved, is designed to alleviate.
In April 2015, the task force that led to the Behavioral Health Initiative visited Tucson, a similar-sized Southwest city. The Journal quoted Paul Hopkins, a veteran mental health counselor who is now on the Community Supports committee saying that “the key difference between the two cities is that the Tucson area has a system which with to deliver mental health services and the Albuquerque area does not.”
Although the Journal has focused for the past two years on their identified “cornerstone” of a Crisis Response Center similar to one in Tucson, Bernalillo County has focused on the fact that services needed are hard to find and there aren’t enough of them for a community of our size. Hopkins pointed out that patients need a way to find and pay for the right kind of services. In 2015, there weren’t enough services to meet needs. There still aren’t. We have not been looking at a “one door” center like Tucson built at a cost of $64 million because they lost a class-action lawsuit based on an Arizona statute requiring it to provide “a full continuum” of services to the mentally ill.
From the Journal’s Editorial in April, 2015: “Having an expensive center where people can be stabilized, then released to fend for themselves, won’t fix the problem. People with mental issues essentially are on their own in figuring out how to navigate available services and providers. Plopping down a $20 million crisis center alone won’t change that. Now that Bernalillo County taxpayers have created a funding stream, the county needs to find a way to ensure that money is spent on best and proven practices.”
And that is exactly what we are doing.
I’m retired from the state, where I was known as the Mental Health DA in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, the go-to person in the office on mental health issues. I was selected for the Behavioral Health Initiative committee partly because of my professional background, and partly because I’m a person living with bipolar disorder. My work experiences, and my own personal experiences, have taught me that treatment works.
I can speak firsthand about the programs my committee has worked on. The Community Engagement Teams take a community outreach approach to engage people with serious mental disorders and links them to services. Each team will include a mental health professional, and at least one peer who lives with a mental illness. A group that includes two committee members is reviewing the Request for Proposals that went out in July. Because we are implementing a new service instead of continuing an overreliance on armed law enforcement to get hurting people to services, this takes time.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences programs created go far beyond adding capacity to existing programs. Each program funded is a pilot based on the best evidence about what works, and each will be subjected to vigorous effectiveness research.
All of this has come after hours of educating ourselves, using the county’s and UNM Institute for Social Research’s resources, taking public comment and involving ourselves in the procurement process. This all takes time. As a lawyer, I like to tell people that it generally takes about as long to get out of a problem as it did to get into it. By that standard, we are moving with lightning speed.