The issue of mental illness has become an important topic of public discussion, particularly after recent mass shootings. Gov. Chris Christie has said he considers mental health to be a priority issue, but some wonder if he’s doing enough. Phillip Lubitz, the associate director of the New Jersey chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the governor has worked positively for the mentally ill, but that New Jersey needs more resources to successfully treat those in need.
Lubitz has criticized Christie’s administration for failing to fund a law that has been on the books for the past four years. He said it’s only been funded during one of Christie’s terms. But he stressed that his criticism was for that particular issue.
“In general the governor has been pretty good on mental health funding. New Jersey I think in each of the years of his term has probably ended up in the top 10 states in terms of mental health funding,” Lubitz said. “The problem really is that we are so far in the hole that we have a lot of ground to make up.”
According to Lubitz, there are many mental health programs throughout the United States and that the entire system needs significant reform. He said New Jersey is no different.
Christie has said it might be wise to eliminate one outpatient program that has just 60 people enrolled, but Lubitz said he should look at the situation more closely. “Essentially these are programs that have only been in operation for about six months. So that it’s getting off to that sort of start really isn’t surprising,” he said. “In fact, we worked some of the numbers and it’s a program that essentially was started with the idea that it would serve about 400 people statewide when it was fully funded and fully operational.”
The individuals who use that program are the most ill and most in need of hospitalization, Lubitz said. “I think one of the really nice things, good things about this program is that it’s an early identification system for really again our most disabled people or people who are disabled by mental illness,” he said. “Really is going to help us intervene with those people before their illness becomes so full blown that they hurt themselves or hopefully not hurt someone else.”
In the past, mental health patients were more often put in psychiatric hospitals. While there were many problems with such facilities, some have said there aren’t enough in-patient options for patients today.
“I think we’ve under resourced. There’s no doubt that we never want to repeat some of the things that happened when we had thousands and thousands of people in psychiatric hospitals,” Lubitz said. “With that said, part of the problem we have in our mental health system that causes it to be so disjointed is that we haven’t fully created a continuum of care for people who are say coming out of the hospital or continuing programs that can prevent people from going into hospitals.”
Sometimes patients who are hospitalized and then released end up in a worse condition than they were previously, according to Lubitz. He said many mentally ill can end up in jail or homeless.
“It’s generally recognized that the largest psychiatric hospital that exists now in the country is the Los Angeles County Jail. So jail has become that default hospital system for lots of people who are homeless,” Lubitz said. “I think we’re all aware that a large portion of the homeless population are people who are acutely psychiatrically ill.”