Tony Comerford, Ph.D. [Published Asbury Park Press May 8, 2020]
COVID-19 has changed the way we live and those changes are particularly acute in New Jersey; for those on the front lines and others, it’s like a war zone. As we struggle through and anticipate a new “normal,” we are confronted daily with what will not change when the immediate challenges subside.
Thousands in New Jersey live with mental and substance use disorders that “socially distanced” them from society before the pandemic took hold. Isolated from their families and communities and without the help of substance use and mental health agencies, they threaten to over burden health care and other social service systems in the state More importantly, the treatments and services that these organizations provide help many to becoming productive citizens.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of this, our non-profit alone admits more than 4,000 annually for the treatment of substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders. Multiply that by agencies across the state that keep thousands more out of emergency rooms and jails and again, and more importantly, return productive citizens to society.
Now the COVID crisis has worsened circumstances for all, but especially for those most in need. There is evidence that the illegal drug supply is shrinking adding to the desperation of those heading into withdrawal. This is as access to medications and treatments has, at least temporarily been restricted. The demand for services is also skyrocketing as society struggles to deal with today’s realities and many succumb to looming substance use and mental health problems.
I’m in awe of organizations like ours across the state that have turned-on-a-dime to continue serving as many in need as possible. This is by shifting to telehealth platforms and adapting in-person settings in ways to assure for the safety of patients and staff members alike. While this is the case, there remains a huge and growing demand for inpatient and residential treatment settings, to include halfway houses that are crucial to the continuing care of many.
There was a capacity shortage before COVID hit and the pandemic has further restricted access to avoid spreading the virus. Make no mistake — demand for services has not declined, but we simply cannot admit all in need without jeopardizing the health and safety of staff members and patients. With a huge demand for services and inadequate revenues organizations like ours across the state are struggling, and many may not survive.
We have been further burdened by massive increased costs to keep our facilities staffed and provide the personal protective equipment (PPE) so necessary for staff and patient protection. Immediate and unplanned investments were called for to purchase technology, equipment, supplies and training to launch telehealth, and we are struggling to support staff members that are juggling with their own work, health and family priorities. Donations have dried up and many like us have applied for loans; the truth is we cannot hold things together for long and we need help.
We, and those like us, want to continue delivering vital treatment and other services to keep people out of overwhelmed Emergency Departments and social service systems today and in the aftermath. I have great concerns that the frontline workers now running on adrenaline will crash when the crisis begins to recede. Heroes overwhelmed by trauma and PTSD will struggle if substance use and behavioral health providers are unable to respond. When most needed, we may be struggling for our own survival.
We do have one opportunity to fix this, but only if we act now.
The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies has joined with the National Council for Behavioral Health and more than 40 other organizations in urging Congress to include an emergency appropriation of $38.5 billion for behavioral health organizations in the next stimulus package. This infusion would ensure that substance use and mental health disorder treatment organizations in New Jersey remain viable to respond both to the immediate crisis and the anticipated aftermath.
We are all in this together and all have a role to play. Our 300-plus employees are doing their part, despite the risks and challenges involved. We want to continue to be there to help in these times of great need, but we cannot do it alone. We need emergency funding from Congress, and we need it now.
Tony Comerford is president and CEO of New Hope Integrated Behavioral Health Care