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Mental health service expansion: Noble goal but complex execution

Gov. Tom Wolf has announced a right-minded priority for 2020 — a broad effort to improve mental health services and change public perceptions of mental illness.

The initiative includes more resources and a public-outreach campaign similar to the strategy that has been deployed in response to the opioid crisis.

“Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” includes developing new state regulations on health insurance coverage, coordinating services for physical and behavioral health, analyzing pay and other factors for those who provide mental health services, and finding ways to get more social workers in schools.

It calls for training more state workers in suicide prevention, assessing Department of Military and Veterans Affairs resources regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and self-harm, and widening Aging Department information and training about dementia.

All of this makes sense because it strikes at the root of many of the most hideous outcomes we see everyday. Shootings that take lives don’t just happen. Situations that evolve into homelessness, drug addiction or domestic violence don’t just happen.

There is a mental health component involved.

Now comes the hard part of Wolf’s initiative: What does the execution look like?

This can’t be another bureaucracy added to our massive state government. This can’t be a set of ideas merely passed onto county governments, which then are charged with executing and paying for more services. County governments already are overburdened with unfunded mandates.

The tenets of Wolf’s plan need to be fed to a blue-ribbon panel of mental health professionals who need to then determine what would work and not work and how the execution would look. And the state Legislature and Wolf administration need to then figure out how the state budget can be reconfigured to fund this worthy priority.

The scourge of mental health illness and the outcomes that accompany it are nonpolitical. They impact everyone, regardless of political party or preference. Blunting its impact requires a long-term marriage between government at all levels and mental health professionals that takes what is being done now to the next level.

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