While state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, recently won an
award for his support in funding mental health services for adults and children in Tennessee, mental
health officials indicate the state still has hurdles to cross in increasing awareness and access to
McNally, along with Rep. Michael Harrison, R-Rogersville, earlier this month received a
Legislative Victory Award from the Tennessee Association of Mental Health Organizations for
leadership in Nashville and for their support of "critical State funding to preserve essential
behavioral health services" in Tennessee, according to a press release from the
Ellyn Wilbur, executive director with the Association of Mental Health
Organizations, said McNally and Harrison won the award for their sponsorship of a budget amendment
to restore funding for mental health peer support centers and Behavioral Health Safety Net
Wilbur said the state currently has 40 peer support centers that connect patients
with people who have firsthand experience with mental illness.
"That funding was in jeopardy,
and it could very well be in jeopardy this year, hopefully not," Wilbur said.
She said the
Behavioral Health Safety Net assists about 30,000 people in the state without insurance or TennCare
in getting access to care.
Wilbur said those two funds were nonrecurring and have to be
approved each year.
"A lot of the funding for services that go through the Department of
Mental Health are considered recurrent funding, and so that's determined by the budget that's passed
by the state," she said, "but nonrecurrent funding you have to look at it every single year as to
whether or not it will be included at all, so that was especially important."
In addition to
the Legislative Victory Award, McNally in 2012 was named the Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee
District Attorneys General Conference. He was also named a Guardian of Small Business.
honored to receive this distinguished award from TAMHO," McNally said in the release about the
mental health award. "I will continue to promote and advance legislation to protect behavioral
Despite the efforts of McNally and Harrison, the state is still facing
an uphill battle regarding mental health.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in
its most recent survey that Tennessee's mental health system had fallen from a grade of "C" in 2006
to a "D" in 2009. Indicators included health and promotion, recovery services, consumer and family
access to essential information and community and social collaboration with mental health agencies
in the state.
Connie Whaley, East Tennessee regional coordinator with the alliance, said the
state "deserved" the grade it received because access to care did not meet demand.
for me to comment very negatively because we are dependent on the legislators for our financing - a
lot of it - and we also are dependent on the goodwill of the Department of Mental Health, but the
services available, they're inadequate," Whaley said.
NAMI is an organization that advocates
for improved access to services and treatment, supports research and works to raise awareness about
mental health concerns in the communities it serves.
Whaley said because of funding
shortfalls, her territory in Tennessee has doubled in the last two years. She is now the coordinator
for the eastern half of the state, noting that in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting and other
tragedies, the conversation among officials about mental health often takes a wrong
"Unfortunately, it take things like the incident in Sandy Hook to get people's
attention and get them to talk about it, and unfortunately, frequently, what they talk about when
you get their attention is wrong," Whaley said. "Rather than (addressing the issue) with education
and support and being proactive and avoiding problems, they just want to lock everybody up is what
it comes down to (in) a lot of the conversation."
She said the state is working to expand its
Crisis Intervention Team training for police officers to recognize when a person is suffering from
mental illness. She also pointed to the expansion of crisis services and crisis stabilization units
as positives in the state mental health system. Units are located in Knoxville, Morristown, Johnson
City and elsewhere in Tennessee.
"These are all wonderful programs, but they are
underfunded," Whaley said. "They�re too small, but we're making progress with them."
said the mental health system sees about 90,000 patients per month, noting that while physicians and
therapists are offering quality care, funding shortfalls are a recurring theme.
serving a lot of people and doing a very good job at it," Wilbur said. "At the same time, the
funding that's been available through the Department of Mental Health has really decreased over
time, and the number of people who don't have insurance has increased over time, especially in the
last three years associated with the economic downturn, so that really is a huge challenge for the
system as a whole."
Harrison's district in Rogersville recently made news when Hawkins County
Commission and the local board of education outlined plans to provide $725,000 to position a school
resource officer in each of the county's 19 schools, a measure Whaley said was
That sum "will buy a lot of mental health care," Whaley said. "And I won't
even get into the politics of the probability that there would be an incident in one of their
schools or the probability that an officer would help, but that money would buy a lot of health
Another problem specific to East Tennessee was the closure last year of Lakeshore
Mental Health Institute in Knoxville.
Whaley said as a result police agencies were either
having to keep people with mental illness in jail or transport them to other mental health
facilities in the state.
"The big problem with that is if someone is in psychosis, if they're
actively hearing voices and having hallucinations, the longer they're allowed to stay in that state,
the more likely it is that it'll become permanent," Whaley said. "And right now, it's a real burden
on all of the sheriff's departments to transport so far, and apparently the forensic units in those
hospitals are full."
Noting cases in which some parents wait up to 10 years before getting
their children the mental health care needed, increased awareness and erasing the stigma associated
with mental illness was the key in addressing the underlying problems.
"It's not these mass
shootings, and I don't really want to make mental health about that, but that is a component of it,
that people did not get help in time, and they didn't because they were ashamed, and they were
ashamed because they didn't understand," she said.