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Attorney General James addresses 'mental health crisis in Western New York' in public hearing


Fri, Jan 20th 2023 03:55 pm

Dozens of testimonies submitted to OAG describe challenges in mental health care in Western New York, across state 

Submitted on behalf of New York Attorney General Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James held a public hearing on mental health care in Western New York. Dozens of impacted individuals, health care providers, elected officials, and community members provided testimony on their challenges accessing and providing mental health care and services.

Testimonies covered a wide range of issues, including but not limited to underfunding for community health groups and health care facilities, gaps in coordinated care, understaffing, and stigma around mental health care. This was Attorney General James’ second public hearing on mental health services in New York, following a hearing in New York City held in June 2022.

Attorney General James encourages New Yorkers who have faced issues or barriers accessing or providing mental health care to submit written testimony to her office through Jan. 20. 

Through these hearings, Attorney General James aims to gather input directly from urban, suburban and rural communities across the state to inform legislative solutions and enforcement actions.

“The last several months have been especially devastating for Western New York, and many have been left without adequate resources and care to address their mental health needs,” James said. “These hearings are critical to our efforts to improve mental health services for New Yorkers, bring down barriers to accessing mental health care, and help communities heal. I thank every individual who shared their personal and often painful experiences as part of this hearing. Testimony and data gathered by my office will help us tackle the mental health crisis gripping our state and ensure that adequate and culturally competent care is available to all those who need it.” 

Twenty-one individuals provided oral testimony, and nearly 100 individuals have submitted written testimony to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). Written testimony will be accepted online through today, and all the testimony will be made public. 

The livestreamed event can be viewed here

James’ first public hearing was held in June 2022 in New York City, and primarily focused on issues impacting the downstate region. Dozens of impacted family members, health care providers, advocates and elected officials testified in the New York City public hearing. 

“Too many times, things are said about mental illness and what needs to be done to make life better for those who suffer, but nothing is done. Instead of empty words, actions need to be taken to show that New York state truly cares about the thousands of people who suffer everyday with mental illness and the effects it has, not only on them, but on family, friends and society,” said Elisa and Joe Tobia, impacted family members who testified at the hearing. “While having lost our 30-year-old son to schizoaffective disorder, the undertaking of Attorney General James gives us hope for the future. We cannot thank Attorney General James enough for taking the time to listen and be willing to take action to finally help those who need it so desperately.”

“Quality mental health services are an essential component in the overall health of the community, but access to these services is not always a given,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. “I thank Attorney General James for holding this hearing to gain input from the individuals and agencies who deal with mental health issues every day, gaining valuable perspective that can aid in improving access statewide.” 

“As I work in my capacity as Senate Mental Health Committee chair to improve mental health outcomes in my community and across the state, I am encouraged that Attorney General Letitia James has taken an interest in improving care in Western New York,” said New York State Sen. Samra Brouk. “The attorney general has unique power to implement legislative and enforcement solutions, and I look forward to working with her to address unmet needs in our communities.”

“There is a stigma surrounding mental health,” said Erie County Legislature Chair April N.M. Baskin. “That stigma manifests itself in our personal lives, where we do not feel comfortable discussing or acknowledging our own struggles, and that stigma manifests itself at the community level as well, where we avert our eyes. But we can only begin to heal when we define what ails us, and we can only begin to develop public policies when we admit that this issue is real and wide-ranging. I commend Attorney General James for having the courage to insist that we confront this issue, and for proving a space for the public to share their stories. This work is uncomfortable, but it is essential.”

“Mental health is just as important as physical health. As our communities face an increased need for mental health services, nurses and health care professionals have seen hospital systems throughout the state shutter inpatient mental health and detox services,” said Nancy Hagans, RN, BSN, CCRN, president of the New York State Nurses Association. “Now is not the time to cut back on mental health services. We thank Attorney General James for holding this forum to discuss the challenges to access to care and look forward to real solutions to ensure our communities can heal both mentally and physically.” 

“Too many New Yorkers are struggling to get access to the continuum of crisis, inpatient, community supports and housing they need and deserve,” said Harvey Rosenthal, CEO, New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. “Every day, we see firsthand how harmful it is when these services are underfunded and understaffed or not available at all. Great thanks to Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss challenges and identify real solutions to help our neighbors in need.”

“Thank you to Attorney General Letitia James for convening this important public hearing. Changing a system will require a coordinated effort, must include consumers and peers in the solution, and will only succeed if mental health is addressed at every level,” said Melinda DuBois, executive director of the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York. “Based on the trauma the Western New York community has experienced, we deserve better. MHA is grateful to be part of the solution.”

“Too many Western New Yorkers are struggling to obtain vital mental health services when in crisis. The DCSs have seen firsthand how harmful it is to an individual’s recovery when facilities are underfunded, understaffed, and lack the capacity to appropriately offer treatment during critical times of need,” said Laura J. Kelemen, LCSW-R (DCS, Niagara County), chair, New York State Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors. “I want to sincerely thank Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss these challenges and provide the state with real solutions that help our most vulnerable improve and thrive.” 

“Too many New Yorkers, and a disproportionate number of people of color, only access any kind of behavioral health care as a result of a serious crisis. And even then, our first contact with the system remains limited to police, emergency rooms, and hospital beds, said Chacku Mathai, member, New York State Behavioral Health Services Advisory Council. “We must move away from the failed investments and policies of the past and create a systemic shift to community-based hospital diversion services such as peer run and voluntary outreach and engagement and housing first initiatives. I want to thank Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss challenges and come up with real solutions so that we can help those in need.”

Attorney General James was joined by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy, Assistant Attorney General Michael Reisman, and Assistant Attorney General and Special Assistant to the First Deputy Attorney General Gina Bull for the duration of the hearing.

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