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Kennedy listens, pushes for mental health care reform

Herald News - 3/24/2018

FALL RIVER ? Molly Sullivan went from a girl who was so frightened she couldn't speak, to the young woman she is today playing high school sports and singing on stage.

Sullivan doesn't think she would have coped so well with her past if not for the good mental health care she received at Child & Family Services.

"I grew up in a home where my father abused me, my mom, and my siblings," Sullivan read from a prepared statement Friday morning to U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, local legislators and mental health care workers.

Kennedy made a visit to Child & Family Services, 66 Troy St., to hear its concerns and work toward mending a broken mental health care system.

Kennedy said that unlike Sullivan, not everyone gets the help they need, either because they can't afford care, their insurance won't pay for treatment, or services simply aren't available due to a lack of qualified counselors.

"People need help, and they're not getting it," Kennedy said. "We see the consequences play out in a number of scenarios."

Suicide, school shootings, alcohol and drug addiction, abuse, crime and incarceration, are all the result of lackluster mental health care funding. Kennedy said that instead of dealing with mental health issues, communities are burdened by its consequences.

The system is plagued with "systemic inequity," Kennedy said, where care is only available to those who can afford it. Health insurance companies, despite parity laws, still do not spend as much for mental health care as for physical disease.

Child & Family Services site director and licensed social worker Barbara Beckmann said there were a number of problems.

She said the organization isn't able to offer a good enough salary to hire and retain good counselors. Graduates with master's degrees in social work start at $42,000 a year, so many choose instead to work in the private sector in order to pay off their six-figure education loans.

In the past, a school loan forgiveness program was offered, but Beckmann said it is no longer available in the area because Fall River and New Bedford aren't considered underserved areas.

For two years, the organization has been looking to hire a second psychiatrist to no avail.

"The need is there," Beckmann said. "We would love to grow and hire more people."

Low insurance reimbursements also make it difficult for nonprofit providers like Child & Family Services.

Kennedy said there are ways to fix the mental health care system.

"We're working on it, not quite as quickly as I'd like," Kennedy said. "We will keep pushing."

He said there is currently an audit to learn how much is spent on the results of mental illness, rather than on proper care. The costs he said are "staggering."

Kennedy said he's committed to bringing back the loan forgiveness program that would attract college graduates to nonprofit organizations. Also, there is the problem of low pay, and low Medicaid reimbursements. Enforcing parity laws is another area in need of intervention.

For Sullivan, good mental health care, first from the Saint Anne's Hospital Youth Trauma Program and then from Child & Family Services, made a world of difference.

At first, she didn't want to think about her feelings. She said she was fearful and would dig her nails into her hands for relief.

Counselors got her to first draw her feelings when she wouldn't speak. Later, she worked on acknowledging her thoughts and was able to talk with counselors.

"I faced my past and am no longer running away from it," Sullivan said. "I work on it every single day."

She told Kennedy there was "no mercy in a country that makes health care a luxury" and said she believed in his "vision of a kinder stronger country."

Kennedy asked Sullivan, a sophomore at Somerset Berkley Regional High School, about herself.

She told him she plays volleyball and softball, and participates in show choir and takes music classes. Sullivan said she wants to find a job, learn to drive, and is thinking about her future.

"You've got quite the young lady right there," Kennedy told Sullivan's mom, Kathy Sullivan-Stafford.

"I can't say enough about this program," Sullivan-Stafford said. "I'm a huge advocate."

Email Deborah Allard at dallard@heraldnews.com.

 
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