Work underway on state Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force

The N.C. Mental illness and Substance Abuse Task Force

Gov. Pat McCrory with The N.C. Mental illness and Substance Abuse Task Force

RALEIGH – Gov. Pat McCrory’s Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force kicked off Tuesday afternoon amid positive signs that the N.C. General Assembly is on board with his efforts to bring statewide focus to mental health issues. The budget conference report released on Monday and passed by the Senate Tuesday infuses the judicial system with money for increased care and capacity in state prisons’ mental health units, while also putting more than $3 million in block grants for residential substance abuse treatment facilities.

“We are still reviewing the details at this point, but it appears we are looking at a very positive outlook in the budget for mental health.  This is something that we fought for and I appreciate Public Safety’s support on that,” McCrory said at the Task Force kickoff meeting held at N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center. “Mental illness is often something that is swept under the rug because people don’t want to talk about it. But it’s impacting our court system, our prisons, our emergency rooms, every deputy, every firefighter and our whole society. We need to find out where we have gaps that are being ignored and destroying our communities and so many families.”

The task force is charged with making specific policy recommendations on how to handle the growing impact of mental illness and substance abuse in the state. The group is chaired by the N.C. Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Mark Martin, and gathers experts in judiciary, corrections, public policy, private business, and substance abuse treatment.

“These disorders really are like a thief in the night, invading and robbing us of the pleasures of life… we can do better,” said Rick Brajer, the new secretary of Health and Human Services and task force co-chair. “We will develop systematic recommendations for these vexing problems and how they effect children, teens, adults and families. Our goal is to break down stigmas and better utilize the justice system.”

N.C. Central Prison in Raleigh

N.C. Central Prison in Raleigh

The group’s efforts come as law enforcement and the judicial system get a boost in the long-awaited compromise state budget plan. The House is expected to pass it Wednesday after the Senate gave it a green light today. The budget funds McCrory’s request to raise salaries for corrections officers, prison employees and Highway Patrol Officers. The increases are part of an effort to draw and keep employees in these hard-to-fill jobs and improve the care of prisoners with mental illness. However, law enforcement is only part of the formula.

“All three branches of state government have to boldly confront this complex issue that touches so many families…. Our court system processes about 3 million cases a year and many of them are mental illness or substance abuse cases,” said Chief Justice Martin. “We face no small task and must be the voice of those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, but also those who strive to help them.”

The numbers

  • 3 percent salary increase for State Highway Patrol members (starting salaries go from $35,000 to $36,050 annually)
  • $36 million over two years for pay increases for corrections officers, custody supervisors, prison facility administrators , correctional food service
  • $38 million over two years to increase salaries for corrections officers
  • 66 new jobs and 72 additional beds at the central prison mental health facility
  • 8 new behavioral treatment units at close custody prisons
  • $3.25 million in competitive block grants for long-term, residential substance abuse services.
  • The N.C. Hospital Association says that long before the mentally ill or addicted end up in prison, they show at in emergency rooms. It estimates that hospitals handle 162,000 emergency behavioral health cases each year.

“Community hospitals are the safety net for behavioral health; every three minutes, a North Carolinian experiencing a behavioral health crisis arrives at a hospital emergency department,” according to the N.C. Hospital Association. “Not only are these visits and admissions expensive, but they are not providing the appropriate level of care for the patients.”

Turning a spotlight on mental illness and substance abuse has been one of McCrory’s priorities since taking office in 2013. However, recent news images of drunk driving auto accidents, violence from drug deals gone bad, and the murder of a news crew in Virginia, allegedly by a man thought to be mentally ill, have turned public attention to the issue. Combined with last year’s dehydration death of an inmate at Central Prison, the events have lit a fire under advocates for change.

“We must help those who can’t help themselves, while encouraging those who can,” said McCrory.

The Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force has a May 1, 2016 deadline to study and make strategic recommendations to McCrory.