The new state budget cuts more than $110 million in funding from the state’s eight regional mental health agencies in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Legislators have proposed $152 million in cuts for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
“We have to negotiate and look at the right thing to do with the money we have available,” said Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, one of the health budget writers.
Malone said regional agencies will need to rely on existing savings to bridge the funding gap.
But these budget cuts pose new challenges for the variety of mental health programs offered in the state.
“The state has a responsibility to care for vulnerable people,” said Jack Register, executive director of the North Carolina branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental health advocacy organization.
He said North Carolina has a history of ignoring mental health issues that include not only its definition and treatment options, but also its funding.
“We have always been a state that underfunds mental health services,” he said.
Dr. Allen O’Barr, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC Campus Health Services, said his department’s offerings, which focus on brief psychotherapy programs, suffer from low funding. But he said they do not rely on state funding.
“We get our bulk of funding from student health fees,” O’Barr said. “We get approximately 11 percent of health fees.”
CAPS refers 25 percent of people who use its services into the community for long-term psychotherapy treatment options and medication, he said.
The state has created some alternative sources to offset the loss of mental health funding, like the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Fund — created after the May sale of the Dorothea Dix Hospital to the city of Raleigh.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services received $25 million from the Dorothea Dix fund to pay for 150 hospital beds across the state to treat temporary behavioral health patients.
But Register said quick fixes aren’t always effective.
“Mental illness is a long-term chronic disease and is not something you can get rid of with short treatment,” he said.
Malone said mental health is something in which the state needs to be willing to invest.
“We can’t do this again,” he said.
Register said mental health advocacy will only grow in importance. Previous divisions between medicine and psychiatry are slowly disappearing, he said, and funding for the two will no longer be divided.
“People who have serious mental illnesses are just like everybody else,” he said.