Blair commissioner joins plea for mental health funds

The Blair County Courthouse is illuminated in green light in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month earlier this week. Courtesy photo

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County Commissioner Laura Burke has added her voice to a call for state lawmakers to restore mental health funding to counties that was reduced a decade ago.

Burke and fellow commissioners Bruce Erb and Amy Webster voted Tuesday to proclaim May as Mental Health Awareness Month and call for a commitment toward greater awareness and understanding of mental health conditions and services.

County leaders also said the courthouse is being illuminated nightly in green this month in support of the recognition.

“It is important that we reduce the stigma associated with seeking help,” Burke said, adding it’s important for state lawmakers to restore $84 million in mental health funding that was cut in 2012.

“We’ve had flat funding since then, for the past decade, while the impact of the opioid crisis and now the mental health fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have ravaged our county,” Burke said.

Burke spoke of county residents in need of mental health services getting arrested because of their behavior, getting little to no treatment in prison and getting released from prison with a few days worth of medication and nowhere to go.

“Protecting and caring for the most vulnerable members of our society is a government function,” Burke said. “The social services must be adequately funded by government and by extension, the taxpayers. I know that’s a hard pill for some people to swallow, but if you spend five minutes with anyone who works in and around social services, including our warden, our public defender, our Children, Youth & Families staff, not to mention our mental health and social services employees, you’d know how badly that funding is needed.”

In the next few weeks, state lawmakers will be voting on a 2022-23 budget that could have some additional money for mental health services handled by the counties.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, released in February, allocated an additional $36.6 million toward restoring prior mental health funding cuts that affected the counties.

In January, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania identified more funding for mental health services as a top priority for county governments.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the association has reiterated its need for state funding to improve resources such as crisis intervention, support for individuals leaving state facilities, treatment and prevention.

“If we continue down this same road,” association President Daryl Miller of Bradford County said in a news release, “we are looking at potentially devastating consequences for all citizens who are affected by mental health issues.”

Burke said that after 10 years of flat funding from the state, it’s clear that private organizations aren’t stepping in to fill the gap.

James Hudack, who supervises the county’s human services department and mental health services, expressed his appreciation for support in favor of state funding increases.

“It’s not a political issue,” Hudack said. “This affects everybody.”

Also in support of Mental Health Awareness Month, social services staff member Cindy James announced that arrangements are in place with the Altoona Curve to take the field in green pinstripe jerseys with the names of those who died by suicide. At that same Curve game, photographs will be displayed of properties illuminated in green. Photographs should be submitted by May 8 to lwagner@blairhealthchoices.org

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.


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