We must protect funding for prevention and treatment of mental illness.
By Senator Cathy Breen
I read with great sadness the story in this newspaper about John Norton, a smart and talented young man with a bright future cut short after a nearly two-year struggle with schizophrenia.
In the wake of his suicide, Norton’s parents were determined to share their story. His mother said they wanted to help other families dealing with the pain and confusion of schizophrenia. I applaud their courage and conviction. And, as I read the story, I was struck by how similar the Norton family is to my own. We share so much in common, and but by the grace of God, their tragedy could easily be my own.
I have a 21-year-old daughter. She is wonderful, intelligent, talented and generous. She also lives with child-onset schizophrenia. Her symptoms began when she was in the sixth grade. Over the past 10 years, she and our family have learned how to live with this devastating illness. It has been the hardest challenge I have ever faced, and this illness has profoundly re-defined my family.
Last year, I spoke publicly about my daughter’s diagnosis for the first time. Like the Nortons, I want to do my part to shine a light on the reality of mental illness — not only to remove stigma, but to inform a conversation about how to take care of Mainers and their families who are living with serious and persistent mental illness.
Ironically, families like ours are lucky to live in the time we do. We now understand, for example, that illnesses such as schizophrenia are medical disorders, and involve disturbances in brain biology.
In the same way that there are warning signs and identifiable risk factors for diabetes or heart disease, there are symptoms and risk factors that precede the onset of schizophrenia. Screening can detect these warning signs in young people before their first psychotic episode, and psychosis can actually be avoided. They can be helped to transition to successful, independent lives as adults with much healthier brains. Such early intervention also saves money by decreasing hospitalization, incarceration, and costly services for substance abuse and associated medical illness.
This cutting-edge approach to mental illness can be seen right here in Maine. The Portland Identification and Early Referral, or PIER, program at Maine Medical Center offers the kind of psychiatric services that can make a real difference in young patients’ lives. In 2013, PIER worked with Maine Department of Health and Human Services to win a competitive federal grant award worth $5 million over five years to provide these services in our community and throughout Maine.
Unfortunately, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration this summer terminated the receipt of federal funding for key aspects of the program, without warning or explanation, and without legislative oversight. It rejected $3 million in federal funds that covered early screening and intervention for young people at high risk for developing serious mental illness. Those in the high-risk state are demonstrably ill, and very likely headed for greater deterioration. These cuts are a significant loss of opportunity for early intervention. I don’t mention these cuts to pick a political fight with the governor. I feel I need to call attention to them because I know firsthand how the loss of mental health services can have painful and costly results.
A little over a year ago, my daughter suffered a profound relapse during a gap in services. Her condition deteriorated quickly, bringing a cast of characters into her head that threatened to kill her family if she didn’t kill herself. She wisely went to our local emergency room, seeking in-patient care, and had to wait five days in a windowless room in the emergency department before being admitted. She responded well to inpatient care and returned home. With the help of medication, therapy, and in-home daily living and transportation support, she slowly and painstakingly improved. Today, she is stable and holding down a part-time job.
As our chief executive is fond of saying, “actions speak louder than words.” It’s not enough to profess to care for Mainers living with mental illnesses. We must support them and their families with robust and accessible evidence-based programs that help them live healthy, stable lives. And we must use our limited resources in the most cost effective way.
Severe, persistent mental illness is detectable and treatable in early stages. As a new member of the Legislature’s budget committee, I’ve pledged to fight not only to protect existing state resources for mental illness prevention and treatment, but to expand our state’s commitment to those services. For families like mine and the Norton family, they are a matter of life and death.
Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, is the lead Senate Democrat on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.