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Government - State News

House Speaker David Ralston Champions Mental Health Bill

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As we previously reported in SPOTLIGHT, Georgia has maintained a low ranking when it comes to mental health treatment. That may be changing soon after House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, introduced a bill that would boost access to mental health treatment in the state. 

In a rare move, the Speaker rolled out House Bill 1013. Last week Ralston said, there is “no issue this session is more important to me than (mental health). I am tired of telling desperate, hurting families that we have no treatment options available in Georgia.”

A 2021 report by Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group, has Georgia ranked low nationally on most measurements of mental health treatment while it ranks high in the percentage of residents who face challenges, according to announcing the legislation. 

This legislation aims to expand Georgians’ access to care, increase the number of mental health professionals in the state, require insurance companies to cover mental health the same way they cover physical health, give first responders help when they’re called into a mental health crisis and improve data and transparency in the sector.

Ralston says he will increase access to mental health services and improve the way the issue is addressed in the state. 

“Mental health issues touch almost every family in this state,” Ralston said. “Mental health intersects with public safety. It drains our economy of productivity. At its most basic level, it allows hopelessness to win the battle for the future and bring pain to those who are left to suffer the consequences.”

To announce the bill, Republican Ralston was joined during a press conference by a bipartisan group of stakeholders including state representatives, mental health advocates, and commissioners from the state’s insurance, Corrections, and Juvenile Justice departments. 

The Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission developed more than 50 recommendations to change Georgia’s laws which are included in the bill. 

Ralston acknowledged that many of the proposals have a cost and will require funding, but he does not know the cost to the state yet. Meanwhile, Ralston has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp who issued a statement saying, “No matter where we travel across the state, (first lady) Marty (Kemp) and I hear about how the pandemic has further exacerbated these needs, and we are confident that reforms included in this legislative package will create a lasting, positive impact across our state.”

Georgia Statistics

For years, Georgia had remained dead last for the number of mental health professionals per capita. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says Georgia has only eight psychiatrists per 100,000 children; the academy suggests a better ratio is 47 per 100,000.

  •  From April 2020 to April 2021, there were 2,036 overdose deaths, an increase of 36% from the previous year. 
  • Between 2019 and 2020, suicides across the state decreased, but rural suicides rose by about 8%. 
  • The agency’s Georgia Crisis and Access Line saw a 24% increase in calls, texts and chats from Georgians looking for someone to talk to. 
  • As of January, the agency had lost 1,096 of the 3,837 employees it had two years earlier. That shortfall meant 185 beds at psychiatric hospitals couldn’t be filled because of the lack of staffing, Fitzgerald said.

The Executive Director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, Neil Campbell, is pleased with the overall bill but is taking a wait-and-see posture. 

Campbell said her organization wants to make sure that Ralston’s proposed regulations involving involuntary commitment do not become misused. Her concern centers on the bill allowing community-based organizations to identify to a probate court people who should be involuntarily committed for mental health care. “We’re following that really closely because we want to make sure it doesn’t just widen the net and then get more and more people into the criminal justice system,” says Campbell.

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