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Three years after Sandy Hook, more states cut mental health funding

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama light candles honoring the 26 students and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012. (Saul Loeb /AFP/Getty Images)
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Three years after the Sandy Hook mass shooting prompted public demands for mental health care reform, an increasing number of states have cut funding for mental health services, according to a report released Tuesday by a mental health advocacy group.

The report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness said only 23 states increased mental health spending in 2015, compared to 36 states in 2013 and 29 in 2014.

The others have been "treading water" or going backwards by cutting funding for services, according to the report, which called out the disconnect between the "great deal of rhetoric in recent years about the broken mental health system in America and the need to invest in services that work in helping people living with mental illness to recover and reach their full potentials."

In an accompanying statement, NAMI Executive Director Mary Giliberti faulted lawmakers nationwide. “The bad news is that fewer states are strengthening investment in mental health care and Congress has only recently started to act after having been largely absent for two years,” she said.

For the past three years, NAMI has tracked state mental health budgets as a measure of public commitment to adults and children with mental illness. Its reports base each state's budget status on information from websites of state agencies, advocates' reports advocates and media accounts.

In 2013, states began rebuilding from massive cuts to mental health budgets during the recession. Overall, those efforts were not sustained.

And this year, the budgets took a clear hit: Twelve states decreased general funds for mental health, double the number that did so in 2014. (Illinois and Pennsylvania had not passed their final budgets when NAMI compiled the data.)

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The report shows that only 11 states increased investment in mental health care each of the three years: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and Washington.

For the second consecutive year, NAMI cited Minnesota and Virginia as leaders for reform and praised New York for investing significantly in its public mental health system.

The report highlighted the Virginia law that strengthened the state's inpatient psychiatric bed tracking system, which requires all public and private inpatient and crisis-stabilization facilities to report on bed availability every eight hours. That registry and other changes followed the November 2013 attack on state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who was seriously injured by his son after authorities failed to find a psychiatric bed for the troubled 24-year-old. After stabbing his father, the younger Deeds then fatally shot himself.

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By contrast, NAMI found that Wyoming, North Carolina and Alaska have decreased state mental health budgets annually in recent years. States like Kansas, Ohio, Arizona and Iowa, which had two years of budget increases, are now retreating with cuts.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and similar events "undeniably have helped fuel public demand for mental health care reform," Giliberti said, and reversing budget gains has individual and societal consequences.

The vast majority of individuals living with mental illness are not violent, she noted. But without access to services, many end up homeless or in jails and prisons.

The report concludes with recommendations for adequate funding and parity in insurance coverage, early intervention, inpatient and crisis care and criminal justice.

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