ANNAPOLIS - Hundreds of people rallied in front of the state house on Tuesday to say they're happy about increased funding proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in his budget.
But the job's not over yet, advocates say.
"We've dealt with a lot of bad issues, but now ... hopefully, unless Congress destroys the economy of the country, we will have the opportunity to finally start making some of the changes and improvements that some of us have been talking about for years and are long overdue," Sen. Richard Madaleno, of Montgomery County, said at the rally. "We can be a beacon of an example for the rest of the country in how to do this right."
Madaleno said he's cosponsoring a bill, the Mental Health Safety Act of 2013, which would work toward improvements he said are necessary.
The bill would create 24/7 statewide mental health crisis services, put mental health services in every school, incorporate substance abuse services into treating the mentally ill, make sure the mental health workforce is adequately reimbursed, establish geriatric behavioral health specialists in every county, attend to those incarcerated with mental health issues, provide housing opportunities for low-income mental health patients, and ensure comprehensive education to make sure the public understands the symptoms of mental illness and how to get help.
Madaleno said he will work with people like Del. Addie Eckardt, R-37B-Dorchester, who was also at the rally on Tuesday, to get these initiatives done in 2013.
"One-in-four people struggle with serious and persistent mental illness and we need to do something about it," Eckardt said. "We need to build on the structure, on the base that we already have in Maryland. We have a lot of great things, but it's not available to everybody in everyjurisdiction, and that's what we need to be doing."
One of the biggest issues for Eckardt is adequately addressing the mental health needs of children, and she said a lot of times, kids get into trouble with the law as a result of mental health issues.
"There are a lot of kids who never get a diagnosis, so they never get the resources that they need," Eckardt said. "It's staggering to me how many kids we have at risk."
Plus, Eckardt said there are a lot of kids who've never established an emotional connection growing up and have had emotional trauma at home, or have no structure at home to learn how to act in school, that sets them up to get into trouble.
To help solve this problem, Eckardt proposed an improved system of early intervention, where kids can get into the mental health system and get the kind of treatment and structure they need so they don't just "sit in detention."
She said one of the ways to do that is to have mental health components and mental health professionals in schools, which Dorchester County has done.
"The best things I think we did with our children's health care from way back, we made a commitment in Maryland that all children will have access to health care, and when we did that we included mental health and substance abuse," Eckardt said. "I think, for Maryland, that's a real win-win and it's part of the safeguard we have in at least have access to services."
The other thing for Eckardt is that kids age out of the system, so those who turn 18 after not being in school anymore and used the mental health services will still have a need for help.
She said there are programs, like ones at Channel Marker, that look at helping kids with mental illnesses into and throughout adulthood.
"If you have kids who are in the school-based program and are also tied in the Channel Marker program and they can get that wrap-around services, then we have a good chance that those kids will have the structure that they need to be on a wave of success," Eckardt said.
She said she and other lawmakers have been working to make sure that places like Channel Marker has adequate funding, because they're responsible for dealing with the kids and families at risk and developing resources locally to be able to meet their needs.
But once you get all the people into the system, the next problem arises of having enough providers and professionals in the mental health field to care for and help patients, Eckardt said.
Eckardt said she's working to develop the resources needed in communities on the Eastern Shore, including getting pediatricians to have access to child psychiatrists.
"We would like to see more mental health professionals in the offices of pediatricians, because that's another place. If all kids have access to a pediatrician or a primary (care doctor), then those physicians can identify the early issue and get the kind of resources that are needed as well," Eckardt said.