We cannot cut mental health services

   Written by on November 27, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Despite the impact of a bleak economy on Virginia’s budget, we cannot afford to cut mental health services in the Commonwealth.

With the prevalence of violence stemming from mental health crises across the globe, Virginia will do itself a disservice by cutting mental health services. If we were to profile the shooters at Columbine, Timothy McVeigh, Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, and even a former police officer in Farmville, TJ Long, most of them would not qualify for mental health services under the pending regulation changes in Virginia because they did not have a mental health illness that was “significant.” However, we can all agree that these criminals suffered from serious mental health illnesses. As Governor McDonnell stated in 2011, “Reduction in [crime] means fewer victims and less prison costs.” Cutting this program will not reduce crime and I’m afraid of the consequences that may occur. I sincerely believe that programs such as Mental Health Support Services have protected the Commonwealth from more national tragedies.

Almost 1.5 million adults in Virginia live with a mental health illness but less than half of these individuals will be eligible to receive services under the pending mental health changes. Currently, only 19% of adults with mental illnesses receive services from the public mental health system. Can you imagine more than one million adults in the Commonwealth being denied mental health services? When mental health services are cut, the illnesses do not disappear; they show up in homeless shelters, hospitals, the unemployment office, the judicial system and in some cases, the morgue.

In Virginia, nearly 25% of inmates live with a mental health disorder. As a former counselor at Indian Creek Correctional Center, I witnessed hundreds of men receive treatment for their mental illness(es) for the very first time. Yes, they had those same illnesses in society, but their resources were limited. They were often told that their lack of insurance or that their “minor cases” did not warrant treatment. I recall a group session that I led entitled, “hurt people, hurt people.” Dozens of offenders explained that they had battled “demons” for many years and never had an outlet to deal with them.

They talked about how incarceration finally freed their minds. With a cut in mental health services, more Virginians will be “imprisoned in society;” more Virginians will be turned away from much needed help; more Virginians will become victims to people suffering from mental health illnesses.

In light of Senator Deeds’ familial tragedy earlier this week, I hope that our legislators and Governor-Elect will re-evaluate the proposed cuts to mental health services in the Commonwealth. We all know someone who is dealing with mental illness: family, colleagues, friends, neighbors and some of us are dealing with a mental illness personally. Individuals with mental illnesses will not overcome numerous obstacles to receive treatment. We need to find more ways to give them adequate treatment when they need it, instead of finding ways to discourage them. The Commonwealth will continue to grow if we take care of those that need treatment.

Historically, Americans have chosen to intervene rather than prevent. Intervention always costs more than prevention. Virginia can become a trailblazer in America by providing remarkable resources for individuals that need mental health care. Just imagine if Gus Deeds received adequate care earlier this week. A life is priceless. I challenge legislators to protect as many as possible by not cutting mental health services in the Commonwealth. We can pay now, or pay much more in the future.

Taikein M. Cooper

Farmville, VA

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