988 is the national three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (Photo from Massachusetts Department of Public Health)
May is National Mental Health Awareness month which is a stark reminder that the nation and our state faces an alarming mental health crisis affecting men, women and children.
This week, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents a large part of Billerica, filed a resolution in Congress that calls attention to this crisis which impacts the physical, emotional and wellbeing of families, friends and communities. It is estimated that more than 70 million adults and children have a mental health challenge, one out of six adults suffer from depression, 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses and the U.S. surgeon general just announced that loneliness is now a serious mental health crisis. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that more than 55% of residents are experiencing behavioral health issues. Sadly, mental health providers in Massachusetts are not able to keep up with the serious growth of those in need of help.
Behavioral therapists are experiencing burnout from treating an overwhelming number of existing patients seeking urgent care which prevents new patients from receiving prompt treatment, oftentimes resulting in weeks — if not months — for an appointment.
Local hospital emergency departments are seeing an increase in mental health patients needing immediate assistance due to acute psychiatric episodes. Too often these patients, young and old, are forced to wait in the ER for extended periods of time before they are transferred to an appropriate care setting.
Mental health experts believe social media and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated feelings of sadness, anger, and drug and alcohol abuse, which has led to a serious emotional crisis of violence, suicide, harming oneself or others. As a result, municipal and suburban police departments are seeing a dramatic increase in 911 calls requesting urgent assistance for someone experiencing an acute mental health problem. One suburban police department near Boston reports that last year, 50-60% of 911 calls requested officer assistance for residents struggling with behavioral health and substance abuse problems.
Police officers are the first to acknowledge that even though they receive some mental health crisis training in the police academy and as part of their inservice education, they are not the best equipped to effectively deal with people in mental distress.
It is gratifying to know that a growing number of police departments in Massachusetts, including Lowell, are now collaborating and partnering with mental health clinicians who will accompany officers responding to a call for behavioral assistance. In my own town of Billerica, with a population of 45,000, Police Chief Roy Frost is very proud of having a mental health clinician available to accompany officers when they receive a call for help.
Frost, who enters his second year as police chief, understands that mental health and substance abuse are very important community, quality of life and public safety issues. By having a highly trained mental health clinician partnering with his officers, the very best level of urgent care is being rendered to those in need.
The Billerica program is part of a creative and innovative collaborative of police departments in Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Tyngsboro and Dracut and is funded by grants from the state Department of Mental Health.
As the mental health crisis continues to escalate in our region and state, it is incumbent on Gov. Maura Healey and the legislature to seriously consider increased funding to the Department of Mental Health so the agency can provide even greater financial assistance to police agencies and community based mental health providers as a way of creating more programs and services that address this very serious problem.
Billerica’s Rick Pozniak served as a health care communications and government affairs executive and communications counsel to the Mass. Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health created during the Dukakis administration.