GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Mental health care is a vitally important component of post-Hurricane Sandy recovery, but too often it and other services are “siloed, fragmented and disincentivized,” former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and others said at a Friday morning discussion at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Kennedy spoke for almost 20 minutes at the Campus Center Theater, advocating better recognition of mental health.
The former Rhode Island congressman, who is now a Brigantine resident, is an outspoken mental health advocate. He was the sponsor of 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.
“Let there be no mistaking what we're talking about here today,” Kennedy told the audience of about 150 people. “We’re talking about physical health care.”
Kennedy said that disasters remind us that we depend on each other. But too often, he said, people seeking mental health treatment encounter “fear and prejudice and bigotry.”
He said, “It’s not a character issue. It’s a chemistry issue.”
Kennedy compared mental health to civil rights, saying “My friends today, we have segregation in health care. We treat the physical health over here and the mental health over there.”
He questioned treatment of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, where traumatic brain injuries are not obvious, even if they are the emblematic injury of those wars.
“Their wounds are real,” Kennedy said. “They don’t feel their wounds are legitimate.”
In a subsequent talk, television journalist Steve Adubato led Kennedy and health officials from state government and charities in a talk about the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the need to extend clinical services to meet demand.
Debra L. Wentz, the CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, said right about now, six months after the storm, is when people hard hit by the storm realize that things may not return to normal. She said, “That’s when anxiety and depression is the greatest risk.”
Jeffrey Guenzel, the deputy commissioner for the state Department of Children and Families, said people can handle crises for a limited time, but problems grow when there is not a clear recovery.
Zack Rosenburg, who heads The St. Bernard Project, a disaster recovery assistance nonprofit, said his experience has shown people need clear, prompt and predictable paths forward. Instead, he has heard countless stories of where assistance was unintentionally delayed, unclear and ambiguous. He said, “The human toll is tremendous.”
Kennedy said recovery resources are scattered. Incentives in government and corporate America have been misaligned. Problems will be aggravated until better managed.
Other panelists described an over-reliance on referrals by professionals, which can result in people who need services “ping-ponging” between providers.
Adubato, a host on NJTV, pledged to do more television programs on the issue, but as far as providing web links to services, he said, “I don’t know where ... to tell people to go.”
Other panelists talked about budget funding. Some money is available under hurricane relief packages, but more significant, longer-term mental health treatment already faced backlogs due in part to funding reductions, problems that may increase with budget cuts.
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