988 is the national three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (Photo courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a powerful reminder that the nation and our state are facing an alarming mental health crisis affecting men, women and children.

This week, U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, who represents much of Billerica, introduced a resolution in Congress calling attention to this crisis that affects the physical, emotional and well-being of family, friends and communities. More than 70 million adults and children are estimated to have a mental health problem, one in six adults suffer from depression, 110,000 people died last year from drug overdoses, and the US Surgeon General just announced that loneliness is now a serious mental health crisis. . . In Massachusetts, it is estimated that more than 55% of residents have behavioral health problems. Unfortunately, mental health providers in Massachusetts are unable to keep up with the serious growth in those who need help.

Behavioral therapists experience burnout from treating the overwhelming number of existing patients seeking urgent care, which prevents new patients from receiving prompt treatment, often resulting in weeks, if not months, for appointments.

Local hospital emergency departments are seeing an increase in the number of mental health patients requiring emergency care for acute psychiatric episodes. All too often these patients, young and old, are forced to wait in the emergency room for extended periods of time before being transferred to appropriate care.

Mental health experts believe that social media and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated feelings of sadness, anger and drug and alcohol abuse, leading to a serious emotional crisis of violence, suicide, harming oneself or others. As a result, municipal and suburban police departments are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of 911 calls requesting immediate help for someone with an acute mental health problem. One suburban police department near Boston reports that last year 50-60% of 911 calls were to officers for residents struggling with behavioral health and substance abuse issues.

Police officers are the first to admit that although they receive mental health crisis training at the police academy and as part of their professional training, they are not best equipped to deal effectively with people in mental distress.

It is gratifying to know that a growing number of police departments in Massachusetts, including Lowell, are now partnering and working with mental health clinicians to accompany officers who respond to behavioral assistance calls. In my town of Billerica, population 45,000, Police Chief Roy Frost is very proud to have a mental health clinician available to accompany officers when they receive a call for help.

Frost, entering his second year as police chief, understands that mental health and substance abuse are very important community, quality of life and public safety issues. Thanks to highly trained mental health clinicians working with their staff, the best level of emergency care is provided to those who need it.

The Billerica program is part of a creative and innovative collaboration between police departments in Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Tyngsboro and Dracut and is funded by grants from the state Department of Mental Health.

As the mental health crisis continues to escalate in our region and state, Governor Maura Healey and the Legislature must seriously consider increasing funding for the Department of Mental Health so that the agency can provide even greater financial assistance to police agencies and community mental health providers as a way creating more programs and services that deal with this very serious problem.

Billerica’s Rick Pozniak served as executive director of health and government affairs communications and communications advisor for the Mass. Mental Health Commission. Blue Ribbon, which was established during the Dukakis administration.

By Editor

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