Alma Rutgers: Funding Challenge for Mental Health Programs

Greenwich Time 

By Alma Rutgers April 9, 2018 

The NRA uses mental illness as an excuse for mass shootings. It’s mental illness, not guns — especially not semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15 rifle — that’s responsible for these killings, they say.

“So far it’s been a good strategy,” Greenwich Commissioner of Human Services Alan Barry said in a phone interview.

Barry noted that blaming mental illness for gun violence successfully deflects attention away from gun safety legislation. Unfortunately, this false equation between mental illness and gun violence further stigmatizes the mentally ill. Research finds no direct causal link. Only a tiny fraction of violent incidents can be attributed to the mentally ill who are more likely to be victims of violence. This stigmatizing also deters people from seeking help.

On the positive side, the focus on mental illness in the gun violence discussion has led to the creation of mental health task forces that have made some valuable recommendations. Their reports, however, gather dust. Ultimately, nothing is done.

Though Connecticut passed a Child Mental Health Law after the Sandy Hook massacre, the legislation contained no funding. Mental health programs throughout the country are woefully underfunded and overburdened, with access to services severely limited. And despite the blaming of gun violence on mental illness, funding for mental health programs is diminishing.

According to Barry, successful programs exist, and with proper funding, we could effectively address our mental health issues, particularly through early intervention.

One successful model is Laurel House. Founded in 1984, this nonprofit agency provides needed resources for people living with mental illness to help them recover and lead productive lives in their home communities throughout Fairfield County. Last year, Laurel House served 818 individuals. Sixty percent of its funding comes from public sources, with the remaining 40 percent raised privately, said Linda Autore, Laurel House president and CEO, during an interview at the agency on Washington Boulevard in Stamford.

A Laurel House flier describes its mission, purpose, and goals.

Mission: we help individuals and families recover and sustain mental health to lead fulfilling lives.

Core Purpose: early intervention, social inclusion, and recovery.

Goals: increase access to service; expand reach of programs to communities; enhance services for young adults.

The agency recently dedicated its Harrison Hoffman Thinking Well Center. Hoffman, who died in 2006, was a founding member of the board of directors and served as board president. A longtime Greenwich resident, he taught at the Whitby School and Greenwich Country Day School, and served on the Greenwich Board of Education. He was also active in local politics and a member of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee at the time I served as party chair. I remember him as an enthusiastic, warm, and caring person who always advocated for the underprivileged and underserved.

Among the speakers at the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony was Dr. Alice Medalia, director of the Lieber Rehabilitation and Recovery Clinic in New York City and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Medalia, founder of the Neuropsychological and Educational Approach to Cognitive Remediation (NEAR), trained and certified the skilled clinicians, known as cognitive remediation specialists, who work in the Harrison Hoffman Thinking Well Center.

Thinking Well is a Laurel House program designed to help adults and young adults who experience cognitive problems in areas such as attention, memory, and problem solving that result from mental illness.

Autore noted that there are only two other places in Connecticut — the Institute of Living in Hartford and the VA West Haven Campus — that offer NEAR-based programs.

The NEAR Thinking Well techniques are integrated into other Laurel House employment, education, and residential programs. The Supported Education Program, in existence since 1989, assists individuals with mental health conditions to achieve post-secondary academic goals.

With Barry’s encouragement, Laurel House began an outreach program for Greenwich High School seniors. Autore emphasized the need to connect young people with services as early as possible, citing the statistic that 75 percent of those who develop mental illness exhibit symptoms by age 25.

Barry, too, stressed the importance of early intervention.

“We need to start wrapping services around these high-at-risk kids,” he said, lamenting a fragmented system and legislative inertia.

Inertia is unacceptable. It’s time for sensible gun legislation, adequate mental health funding, and rejection of NRA lies.