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We must act now to improve mental health services

Mental health in America has been marginalized and we are all suffering for it. This includes individuals who live with mental health issues and addictions, their families, our employers, our schools and our first responders; who all too often become stopgaps in a broken system.

The results are too often tragic for everyone, and the high monetary costs are draining other opportunities to invest in our people and our community.

It is important that we do better collectively because mental health impacts nearly all families. Approximately 13,500 people in the Greater Albuquerque Region live with a severe mental illness.

By convening consumers of mental health services, policy-makers and providers over the past several years, we have opened up a window of opportunity to address some of the most significant legal, service and access issues that need improvement.

Thanks to the many people who have helped educate me on this complex and difficult issue, here are some of the concrete steps that I believe are needed to bring about real change in how we successfully improve outcomes related to mental health.

• Passage of an Assisted Outpatient Treatment law.

AOT is a proven tool that is being used effectively in almost all states, except New Mexico, to help ensure that people with severe mental illness are appropriately connected with needed treatment services. Sen. Mary Kay Papen is leading the effort to pass an AOT law in New Mexico. She needs the support of our friends in the Legislature.

• Development of a robust system for those in crisis.

This is especially important for identifying patients most at risk, including those with high utilization of mental health emergency and inpatient services, and patients with a severe mental illness at the time of release from jail. The development of mobile crisis teams, expanding Assertive Community Treatment teams, and piloting Community Engagement Teams who make the scene safe while clinicians assess the individual and expedite linkages to behavioral health services would all be real improvements.

• Better coordination of care.

We need a coordinated approach to help connect patients with severe mental illness to treatment, and to coordinate their medical and social service needs. This action will require a collaborative approach between the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. This includes the integration of behavioral health services into primary care sites and the creation of a crisis triage center in conjunction with the passage of an AOT law.

• Closure of gaps in the continuum of care.

For many patients, there are scarce resources available after discharge from an inpatient mental health facility or for those released from incarceration. Intermediate services, such as intensive outpatient, residential treatment, partial hospital and respite programs, have been dramatically reduced over the past decade in New Mexico. These programs need be rebuilt.

• Administrative changes.

This includes updating the New Mexico Mental Health Code to allow for better treatment coordination between the legal system, health-care providers, law enforcement and first responders. There also needs to be a review of reimbursement and regulatory guidelines to allow for the flexibility needed to maximize existing services and increase capacity.

• Support for programs that work.

There needs to be additional support for successful programs, like Albuquerque Heading Home, which provides housing for the homeless while saving taxpayer dollars. There is also a need for a better link between homeless individuals and existing primary medical and mental health-care resources.

This may seem like a daunting list, and it is. We won’t get there overnight. But we must take advantage of the opportunity to work together to make concrete progress.

The city of Albuquerque is committed to work with our partners and stakeholders to improve mental health services for our families, friends and neighbors. If we are successful, these actions will lead to a much improved community for all of us.

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