March 1st, 2014

Vermont mayors cite mental health reform as priority

The mayors of eight Vermont communities have named mental health reform their top legislative priority for 2014 to draw attention to the plight of emergency rooms and law enforcement agencies across the state coping with rising demand for services.

“There is a fairly acute problem in this area right now. We see that in the strain of law enforcement. We see it in the strain on our hospitals,” says Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger.

“We have seen some unfortunate events, very high profile events, that have affected Vermonters over the last year and there is an active policy discussion going on at the state on a number of these issues. For all those reasons, we thought it was important for us to weigh in this year to make it clear that this is a priority for us.”

Weinberger and the mayors of Vergennes, St. Albans, Montpelier, Barre, Rutland, Newport and Winooski formed the Vermont Mayors Coalition to advocate for issues of common interest. The coalition seeks improvements in the capacity and quality of mental health treatment and supports a bill that would expedite the judicial review process for involuntary hospitalization and medication of psychiatric patients.

The new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, on schedule to be completed in time for the planned admission of patients by early July, according to the state’s Department of Mental Health, will address the shortage of acute inpatient beds. But mental health reform is competing with other concerns like property tax reform, economic development and waterway protection that also made the coalition’s priority list announced at a Jan. 16 news conference at the Statehouse.

Burlington police have experienced a staggering increase in mental health-related calls from 150 in 2008 to 641 last year, according to Burlington Police Chief Michael E. Schirling. All of his 100 sworn officers received specialized training to respond to such calls. Since 2009, a collaborative project with the HowardCenter, the state’s largest community mental health agency based in Burlington, has a case worker working an evening shift with police. A new pilot project involves training police dispatchers to query callers reporting mental health concerns to determine the kind of intervention needed and may lead to an expansion of the program with state funding.

Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien would welcome state funding to add a mental health worker to the 15 full-time sworn officers and five part-timers who make up his city’s police force.

“We don’t have enough money in our budget to hire someone who’s trained in dealing with these issues to come on board to support our police department. We’re strapped for every dollar we have,” O’Brien says.

So can the mayors acting together make an impact on mental health reform in Vermont this year?

“I think it really depends on what the mayors do with it,” says Rep. Anne Donahue (R.-Northfield). “Simply having a press conference and announcing it, that one news blurb or whatever will have very little impact.”

Donahue would like to see the mayors taking an active role in putting pressure on legislators.

“I’m on the Humans Services Committee. If this is a priority for the mayors, then they ought to be having folks who are asking our chair to come in and testify. That would be an example of playing a more active role.”

Neither Weinberger nor O’Brien had any dates scheduled to speak at the Statehouse, but Weinberger says the mayors will continue to be engaged over the course of the legislative session.

“It’s not like we have a lot of mayors in Vermont so a coalition is a bit of an overstatement,” says HowardCenter Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Bob Bick.

“I think it’s great the mayors that do exist could cross political boundaries and highlight what is a significant social issue in our state and our communities. While I don’t think that everybody’s exactly on the same page on what the scope of the problem is or what’s the best way to solve it, I think not unlike the governor’s call to action around opiate addiction in his State of the State address, … it shines a light on an issue that needs more attention.”

By Janine Weisman

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