Guest Opinions

Idaho still lacks access and services for mental health, substance abuse

Idaho State Capitol.
Idaho State Capitol. Statesman file

As the coordinator of the Idaho Behavioral Health Alliance, the mounting behavioral health crisis in our state is concerning. The Idaho Behavioral Health Alliance is dedicated to elevating the conversation toward meaningful solutions for mental health and substance-use disorders, and we urge our lawmakers to see this crisis as a priority. The demand for mental health care and substance disorder treatment in Idaho continues to increase, yet we lack sustainable solutions to provide treatment, increase access to care or prevent overdose deaths.

On March 13, the House Health & Welfare Committee hosted a listening session to learn more about recommendations for improving the delivery of Idaho’s behavioral health system. We know that while progress has been made since the Legislature first requested and funded this research 10 years ago from WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education), many challenges remain. Idaho’s rapid growth rate, boosted by an aging population, and our higher-than-national averages for suicide, adult mental illness and depressive episodes fuel the need for a continuum of services to maximize state dollars. Additionally, Idaho isn’t immune to the national opioid epidemic. Increased use of opioids and other illicit drugs like methamphetamine and heroin doubled the number of accidental drug-related deaths in Idaho since 2011.

Historically the treatment our major health systems have offered to their communities has contributed to the belief that physical health is more important than mental health. However, that is changing and we must continue to advocate for integrated care and parity between physical and mental health. We must also support our health systems as they seek to shift their philosophy of care to one that considers the whole person, behavioral health included, so that people with mental illness or substance-use disorders no longer have to rely on crisis or emergency care for their very treatable conditions.

The state can take prudent steps to address these significant concerns. The recommendations of WICHE provide guidance for how Idaho can move forward. They include raising awareness and reducing stigma of behavioral health, expanding screenings for depression, substance abuse and suicides, and adequately funding statewide behavioral health services and providers. In recent years Idaho has experienced a budget shortfall for substance-use disorder treatment, so increasing those budgets will reduce pressure on hospitals and help curb recidivism in Idaho’s criminal justice system, easily saving Idahoans millions of tax dollars. And since physical and behavioral health problems often occur at the same time, moving toward a statewide integrated health system, with coordination of physical and behavioral health care, will yield the best results for those being served.

The Department of Health & Welfare will make budget requests for 2019 based on these recommendations. As advocates for those with behavioral health needs, we support these proposals and count on leaders to fully embrace and fund them. We hope the 2019 Idaho Legislature will recognize the state’s ongoing behavioral health crisis and approve the budgets that will truly serve the needs of Idaho.

Ceci Thunes is the coordinator for the Idaho Behavioral Health Alliance, a statewide network of behavioral health stakeholders and advocates focused on access and services for mental health and substance use disorders.