Now is not the time to slash behavioral health budgets

By Sean O’Donnell

As overdoses and suicides soar in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to gut Nevada’s behavioral health budgets. Legislators have a tough job ahead of them as they get a grip on Nevada’s $1.2 billion budget deficit. Cuts will undoubtedly be made across various departments and programs — but behavioral health services, namely mental health and addiction recovery programming and Medicaid reimbursements for these services, should remain untouched.

According to a recent poll, nearly half of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and another 19 percent said it has had a “major impact.” On Monday, U.S. Attorney for the Nevada District, Nicholas Trutanich, warned of a resurfacing opioid crisis in correlation with the COVID pandemic, stating that in just half of 2020 we’ve already surpassed the number of overdose deaths in all of 2019. In addition to the increase in deaths, overdose-related emergency calls have spiked. A nationwide database that tracks drug-related first responder calls in real-time showed a 20 percent increase in overdose-related emergency calls since the first reported case of COVID-19, compared to the same period last year.

I’m a Nevadan who’s personally lived through addiction and made it to the other side, living a fulfilling life in recovery. I’ve lost close friends to overdoses, and I’ve seen firsthand the crippling effects on families, businesses, and entire communities when no systemic or communal support exists for people like me or my family. And this was before the coronavirus hit. Now, we’re grappling with the rapid changes the virus has brought with it in a world where mental health and substance use supports have historically been underfunded, smack dab in a special session where some of these critical programs could be on the chopping block. 

A small sliver of the total federal relief money was actually allocated to mental health and addiction programs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration received a grand total of $425 million out of the CARES Act, which is a slim 0.23 percent of the total number allocated to health-care providers as a whole.

Our country and state have been pushed further into a mental health crisis with extended periods of layoffs and isolation exacerbating these deaths of despair. And the numbers are just beginning to surface. Well Being Trust, a national public health group, has estimated as many as 154,037 Americans could die from deaths of despair, those from drug or alcohol use and suicide, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Their estimate ranks Nevada as number one in additional projected deaths per capita between 2020-2029 at a rate of 47.8 per 100,000.

Now is the time to reinforce our community-based recovery supports, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery housing programs. Governments and agencies providing critical services and outreach to Nevadans suffering the mental health repercussions of the pandemic must be supported in a time of dueling crises. Now is not the time to cut funding for our most vulnerable neighbors, colleagues, friends and family.

Sean O’Donnell is a person in recovery and an addiction and mental health activist. He works as the communications director at Foundation for Recovery, Nevada’s statewide recovery community organization that provides recovery community support at no cost to participants.