Capital Region

Mental health, addiction groups seek additional state funding

Steve Klein stands in front of Mohawk Opportunities on Nott Terrace in Schenectady Thursday, December 16, 2021.
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Steve Klein stands in front of Mohawk Opportunities on Nott Terrace in Schenectady Thursday, December 16, 2021.

ALBANY — Local organizations combating issues surrounding mental health and addiction are calling for additional state funding in light of what they described as a crisis brought on by an increased demand for their services and dwindling staff due to worker fatigue caused by the pandemic.

Leaders from several Schenectady-based organizations, during a press event in Albany on Thursday, said the current circumstances are untenable and fear the situation will worsen as winter sets in and the virus continues to surge.

“Right now it’s a crisis, but it could become a catastrophe,” said Steve Klein, executive director of Mohawk Opportunities, which provides stable housing and treatment services to those dealing with mental health issues and addiction throughout Schenectady County. The organization has 450 clients, including 200 living in group homes and certified housing units.

Klein joined around a dozen organizations calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to make what they called “long overdue” investments in community organizations dealing with issues of mental health in next year’s state budget, including a 5.4% cost of living adjustment for workers and an additional $500 million to make up for past increases that failed to materialize in the budget for more than a decade.

The money, the group said, is needed to fill vacant positions and bolster wages in order to address the growing backlog of individuals seeking treatment and retain staff that have for years been underpaid.

The Hochul administration did not return a request for comment, though advocates on Thursday said they are hopeful lawmakers will take up the issue when the Legislature reconvenes next month.

“We have a governor that has been talking about these issues, but the rubber meets the road when the budget comes out,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc., a nonprofit working to end the stigma associated with mental illness.

Klein, meanwhile, said one in three positions at Mohawk Opportunities is vacant and retaining staff has been an ongoing issue since the pandemic set in last March, with many leaving the field for less strenuous work that often pays higher wages.

Half of the organization’s clinical staff — which make just over $15 an hour — employed in January have left, and finding candidates willing to fill the positions has been difficult, said Klein, who said workers are “grossly underpaid.”

With additional state funding, he hopes to increase wages to over $20 an hour.

Of the organization’s 60 employees — who have been working extensive overtime to cover the 24 vacant positions — 43% have been with the organization for less than a year, according to Klein.

He attributed the turnover to stagnant wages and increased workload, which can be attributed to a lack of state funding and the pandemic, respectively, and said the quick turnover creates an unstable environment at a time when stability is paramount.

“They’re underpaid, they’re overworked — COVID has had a very significant impact,” Klein said.

Local agencies from across the state echoed similar sentiments, with some saying as many as 25% of positions are currently unfilled.

Meanwhile, demand for addiction and mental health services has grown significantly since the pandemic began last year.

Overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 for the first time in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use has also been on the rise, and mental health services already struggling to meet demand prior to the pandemic have become even more overwhelmed.

Hospital visits for suspected suicide attempts for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have increased 51% between February and March this year compared to the same time period in 2019, according to the CDC.

Kim Kaiser, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Families Together in New York State, a statewide organization that works to provide child mental health services, said the lack of workers in the field was an issue long before the pandemic, but has gotten dramatically worse over the last 20 months. 

The pandemic, which has killed more than 800,000 nationwide, including over 60,000 in New York, disproportionately impacted communities of color and has exacerbated the need for mental health services for children, who have been dealing with the loss of parents and other family members and been forced into isolation, Kaiser said. 

“The landscape was damaged before COVID,” she said. “It was as though we had wounded soldiers on the ground struggling for life without a medic and then we unleashed a weapon of mass destruction right on top of it.”

At Northern Rivers Family Services, a comprehensive-care organization with offices in Schenectady servicing more than 18,000 individuals, including children, across 41 counties in New York, the demand for service has increased exponentially since the pandemic, according to William Gettman, the organization’s CEO.

In 2019, the organization had a backlog of about 150 families and an employee vacancy rate of between 15% and 20%. The backlog has grown to 923 as of Wednesday and a vacancy rate has grown to 35%, he said.

“These are people that have gone through COVID, have increased stress, increased anxiety, and now we have potentially a second wave coming with a new variant,” Gettman said.

He added that salary levels for clinicians is “woefully underfunded,” and said additional funding is needed to increase salaries and higher additional staff, which will lighten the case load for those already in the field.

“When you have a backlog of 900-plus cases, there’s a lot of pressure to deliver services. People overreach,” he said. “We don’t want to do that. We want appropriate and professional services for our families.”

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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