by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
January 31, 2023
When last year’s behavioral health parity bill was signed into law, Janet Norris was sitting in a Bartow County jail cell.
A lot has changed for her since then. After struggling with addiction for 27 years, the Cartersville resident found recovery through mental health court. She says the program saved her life, reunited her family, and set her on a path to becoming a peer specialist and addiction counselor to help others.
And on Tuesday, Norris joined advocates at the state Capitol – just a couple weeks shy of her one-year anniversary of sobriety – to push for more reforms and resources for others facing their own behavioral health challenges.
“That’s why I’m here – to be a voice of courage for the other ones who can’t be and who aren’t where I am,” she said.
Norris was among the hundreds of mental health advocates pushing for measures that will grow the behavioral health workforce, increase access to services, and expand the state’s behavioral health care system.
Many of the advocates wore green shirts that honored the late House Speaker David Ralston, who made improving access to behavioral health treatment his top priority in what would end up being his last legislative session.
Last year’s bill was celebrated as a meaningful first step toward lifting Georgia from the bottom when it comes to access to mental health treatment.
“The way we’re going to honor his legacy is much more than putting his name on the back of a T-shirt,” Jeff Breedlove with the Georgia Council for Recovery said Tuesday. “We’re going to pass another bill this year and another bill next year and a bill the year after that, and we’re going to make life better for peers.”
Follow-up measures are expected this session, although some of the proposals are still taking shape. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, and Rep. Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican, said Tuesday they were working on a bill.
“The work is not completed,” Ralston’s successor, House Speaker Jon Burns, said Tuesday. “We still have work to do.”
A big component of this year’s measure is expected to deal with the workforce shortage that has hamstrung efforts to increase access to treatment and services. It’s also a priority issue for Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
Tanner, who also leads the influential reform-minded commission, said he is pushing for better pay for behavioral health workers and new incentives to encourage college students to go into the field.
“The fact is there are not enough people in our state who are trained and ready to meet the needs of Georgians who have or need treatment for mental health,” he said Tuesday.
“We must retain and we must strengthen our workforce because it truly is a matter of life and death, because for every vacant position is an individual who cannot heal, who cannot access hope and who cannot recover. These realities are simply unacceptable.”
Tanner said he is also trying to get ahead of the increased strain on state services that is expected to come once the federal government promotes the new national 988 suicide prevention line.
“We must be ready to address the demand when it comes because there should be no waitlist for people in crisis,” Tanner said.
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