We are experiencing a once-in-a-century pandemic that has caused significant loss of life. A vaccine is here, but the need for social distancing continues to wreak havoc in our communities.
We see much of the pain and suffering in the news. However, many on Long Island are unaware that an increasing number of people — young and old — are on the edge. Stress, isolation and despair are driving people to alcohol and substance abuse. Suicide rates are going up, and opioid use and overdoses are on the rise as well. At Long Island Reach, we have responded with more than 21,000 telehealth visits.
Recently, as a result of lack of state and federal funding, Long Island Reach and other providers were notified by Nassau County that funds, including $100,000 for our organization for chemical dependency and mental health treatment services, are being cut.
It appears that elected leaders have blinders on. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are not seeing that this is the absolute worst time to cut these programs. Mental health and addiction issues from the pandemic are causing loss of life and this will continue for months, if not years.
Leaders have supported the development of vaccines, secured ventilators and provided PPE to front-line heroes. If they can solve these problems, why can’t they focus on lifesaving counseling and addiction services? It is not an either-or. They must adjust priorities that will provide the required resources to confront the crisis just like they have done with the virus.
Without the funding, Long Island Reach and other nonprofits that provide mental health and chemical dependency therapy and other vital services will be forced to cut staffing, reduce hours and even eliminate lifesaving programs.
The holidays put this crisis into a disturbing perspective. Families are facing dramatic changes. Jobs have been lost. Loved ones have died. Many are experiencing feelings of isolation and despair. Due to the pandemic, people cannot see or visit families during the holidays, cutting them off from their critical support networks.
To stop the catastrophe that is on the horizon, leaders and stakeholders must come together. We need to develop a regional strategy that will add resources to mental health and addiction services. For our part, we in the mental health and addiction services sector are committed to ensuring every dollar is used wisely and effectively. Studies show that funding these programs saves money by reducing health care costs and by keeping people out of the criminal justice system.
Joseph Smith is executive director of Long Island Reach, a community nonprofit providing comprehensive social, psychological, educational and legal assistance.