We tend to think of the things that sap Erie’s prospects in material terms. It’s the loss of jobs and people, the related poverty and blight, the urgent, unmet need to impart modern workforce skills.
But to costly effect, this region’s problems also reside in our heads. School leaders tell us they are witnessing an explosion of student mental health problems fueled by bullying, trauma, parents snared in addiction, and the angry, intolerant national mood.
Those with serious mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime, but our Erie County Court dockets also chronicle alarming cases of individuals with severe mental illness committing heinous crimes in part because we have not yet crafted mechanisms to ensure they comply with the treatments they need to prevent them from harming themselves or others.
Statewide the incarceration of individuals previously diagnosed with serious mental illnesses costs more than $140 million a year, according to a 2017 study by the University of Southern California.
And research shows that a disproportionate number of people here contend with clinical sadness. The rate of Erie County residents covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance and diagnosed with major depression in 2016 – 5.5. percent – was higher than state and national averages.
Erie County’s problems reflect those statewide. That 2017 study found about 1 million Pennsylvanians experienced serious psychological distress in 2015 and more than 27 percent had unmet needs for mental health care, many because they could not afford it.
Its a depressing state of affairs with the power to paralyze.
But as Pennsylvania enters a new decade, Gov. Tom Wolf is shining badly needed light on this complicated, corrosive problem. Mental health treatment can be effective. He wants to ensure Pennsylvanians have access to it and are not too ashamed to name their pain and seek help.
Wolf launched “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” on Thursday. Modeled after his administration’s multi-pronged response to the state’s opioid overdose epidemic, he plans to start with a listening tour.
But already he is eyeing critical strategies to cinch gaps, raise awareness, and create a comprehensive mental health care delivery system. The list includes regulations that ensure insurance coverage provides access to affordable mental health treatment, integrating physical and behavioral health care, analyzing pay for mental health workers and increasing the number of social workers in schools.
Wolf said he wants to end the stigma and the silence.
We credit him for his leadership in compassionately confronting a crisis that too many endure in private, hindered by shame, access and cost. Left untreated, mental illnesses creates a welter of dysfunction from addiction to violence and underemployment that drags down families, communities and the economy.
We can do better. Reach out.