The Sandy Hook Effect In Hartford

When the next legislative session begins in Hartford on Wednesday next week, Governor Dannel P. Malloy will outline his priorities in his formal budget message. The extent to which Newtown and the 12/14 tragedy in Sandy Hook has aligned priorities for the governor and legislators will be obvious. Building on a legislative package enacted last spring that brought significant changes to the state’s mental health system, the governor will once again be highlighting more than $7 million in new mental health initiatives over the next two years backed in principle by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Connecticut has always had a progressive mental health system, but in the wake of the shooting in Sandy Hook the state stepped up its commitment to identifying and addressing the needs of those who might be underserved or overlooked by the existing network of services. As a result, the state now tracks those who have voluntarily committed themselves and restricts their access to guns for six months; funds teams of experts to provide intensive support to those with serious mental problems; requires someone in every school district to be trained to deliver mental health first aid; is establishing links between primary care physicians and child psychiatrists to treat those with behavioral problems locally;  is coordinating the state’s fragmented system for delivering mental health services; created a “Peer Bridger Program” to provide greater continuity of mental health services for those who are routinely involved in the probate court system; and is working on more efficient ways of delivering behavioral health services to young people ages 16 to 25.

On February 5, the governor will propose an additional $2 million this coming fiscal year and $3 million next year in spending on “underserved populations,” including residential services and transitional housing. Another $2.2 million will be earmarked for rental assistance, and a proposed $250,000 anti-stigma campaign is designed to help people overcome whatever shame they may feel about seeking treatment. Another key mental health program in this package of initiatives would require local police departments to undergo CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training so they can better approach people in a mental health crisis.

There is not complete bipartisan agreement on all of these new initiatives, but there is general consensus that an effective and comprehensive mental health system is something the state can handle better than local or federal governments. How such services are paid for and how they are deployed will be up to the legislature to work out with the governor. It is an election year, and there will be plenty of partisan hurdles to clear. The memory of Sandy Hook, however, seems to have brought a lasting focus and commitment to the issue of mental health. We are confident the work will get done.

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