Legislative Caucuses Spotlight Mental Health
By Tim Weldon, CSG Education Policy Analyst
State legislators in Ohio and New Hampshire have launched or heightened efforts to educate their colleagues about mental health issues by creating mental health caucuses—the spinoff effect following summits conducted in recent months by The Council of State Governments.
Nationally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 20 percent of the population suffers from a mental illness, including 6 percent of Americans who have a serious mental illness. From an economic standpoint, the cost of untreated mental illness exceeds $100 billion per year in the U.S, according to the advocacy organization.
Nevertheless, mental health issues for many state policymakers have not been a high priority, particularly in times of scarce state funding.
A mental health caucus gained momentum in Ohio after a summit sponsored by CSG was held in January 2009. Since that initial meeting, approximately 41 people, 16 legislators as well as advocates and providers, met in a subsequent organizational session. Laura Sigal, executive director of Mental Health America in Franklin County, Ohio, said she hopes the work of the caucus will help put a greater focus on mental health issues during current budget negotiations in the legislature.
“Everyone understands mental health issues, but in Ohio we’re dealing with an $8 billion deficit, so it’s difficult to make some of these hard decisions on where this money is going to go,” Sigal said. “So it’s our job to educate them on how mental health impacts some of these other systems like justice, jails, prisons, employment.”
Ohio Rep. Ted Celeste, an active member of the mental health caucus, agrees that educating legislators through the mental health caucus will help raise awareness when it comes to doling out scarce dollars. “Certainly in a difficult time like this, budget issues will arise that affect the mental health community, and it’s certainly something that education will help,” he said.
New Hampshire faces unique challenges in trying to educate members of its House of Representatives. With 400 members, it’s the third largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. Only the U.S. House of Representatives and British Parliament have more members. The sheer size of the New Hampshire House makes educating members about mental health issues challenging.
A mental health summit, conducted by CSG in December 2008, was instrumental in launching that state’s mental health caucus, according to Rep. Liz Merry, who chairs the caucus.
Since the initial meeting, 25 to 30 New Hampshire legislators have met three times to begin discussing possible legislation related to improved mental health.
“I see this as a long-term plan. It’s going to grow year by year,” Merry said. “Probably a year from now I’d like to see some good legislation that wraps itself around housing and the day to day needs of mental illness. … I want to make sure the funding that’s been put in the budget for this year goes through and is starting to have some impact.”
Mike Cohen, director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness in New Hampshire applauds the work of the caucus that shows many lawmakers are taking mental health issues seriously and becoming educated about them.
“(Legislators) realize that untreated mental health spreads out to other issues as well, in terms of emergency room hospital usage or many people who end up in our criminal justice system,” he said. “I think they’re taking a hard look at mental health and the criminal justice system, and that has not gotten much attention in the past.”
For more information about mental health caucuses, what other states have done, and how to get one started in your state, please visit Mental Health America's resource page.