Advocates rally for services

Last modified: Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Mental health advocates said a protest by several hundred people outside the State House yesterday was a rare political display by a community terrified of further cuts to skeletal budgets for services.

The crowd clapped loudly for speakers who described how mental health services had affected their lives or those of family members, and a group of women repeatedly chanted 'Save mental health.'

Gov. John Lynch's plan to close a budget shortfall of up to $220 million for the biennium includes $13.8 million in cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services for fiscal 2010 and nearly $23 million in cuts for fiscal 2011.

Emma Huff, a 25-year-old from Concord, said the proposed funding cuts will threaten the therapy and peer groups that have allowed her to live with schizophrenia. Huff said she tried to kill herself three times before learning to cope with the help of Riverbend Community Mental Health.

'Life is worth living now,' she said. 'Imagine the darkest day you've ever had, and then the sun comes out. That's what it was like going to Riverbend.'

As Huff spoke, three friends from a Riverbend peer support group approached to congratulate her for telling her story to the crowd.

Lynch's proposal comes after years of cuts in state funding for mental health services.

Louis Josephson, CEO of Riverbend, said the recession that has strained the state budget has also led to increased demand for mental health services as people struggle with lost jobs and homes.

He said the last increase in funding for mental health came four years ago, and that was after a decade without an increase.

Josephson said mental health funding can be an easy target for budget cuts, since mental illness is less visible and retains a greater stigma than physical ailments.

'I've had legislators say to me over the years, 'Well, why can't people just get off the couch and go to church?' ' he said.

The latest proposed cuts would limit services for children and adolescents to 2« hours a day and cut rates for psychotherapy by 25 percent, Josephson said. He said there is no way to make up reduced rates.

'It's not like we can do less psychotherapy with people,' he said.

State Rep. Liz Merry told the crowd that there are ways to close the budget gap without making cuts to mental health services.

Merry, a Sanbornton Democrat, pointed to the capital gains tax and estate tax, each considered and rejected in the budget bill passed last summer.

'They do have options,' said Merry, who chairs a caucus on mental health. 'They do not just have to cut.'

The estate tax, an 8 percent tax on estates worth more than $2 million, was expected to raise about $25 million each biennium from 2012. The capital gains tax, which would apply the interest-and-dividends tax to earnings from the sale of stocks, bonds and investment property, was expected to raise $30 million in 2011. Later yesterday, the House Finance Committee recommended passing an estate tax.

Dr. Steve Atkins, president of the New Hampshire Psychological Association, urged attendees to contact their legislators about the proposed cuts. He said any money the state saves by cutting mental health services will be spent in hospitals and prisons.

'We've all been taught incorrectly what a human being is,' Atkins said. 'We're not nouns. . . . We're verbs. We're learning how to be in this world.'