New Wolf admin plan aims to reduce stigma of mental illness, encourage people to seek help

Gov. Tom Wolf was joined by agency officials and mental health advocates in the state Capitol to announce a new, statewide mental health initiative. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

(*This article was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2 with additional comments about the Department of Corrections.)

Wolf administration officials gathered in the state Capitol on Thursday to announce a new, coordinated initiative to reduce barriers to mental health care and to raise public awareness of mental illness. 

“It’s the start of a new decade, and it’s time to start fresh,” Gov. Tom Wolf said during  a press conference held just two days into the new year. “We all know a Pennsylvanian who is struggling with hopelessness, anxiety, or depression, and [stigma] is holding many people back from seeking help.”

The goal of the initiative is to reduce the stigma of mental illness, encourage people to seek treatment and analyze the factors that prevent Pennsylvanians from receiving care, Wolf said. 

The announcement came the day before Wolf is scheduled to kick-off a statewide listening tour to hear from healthcare providers and advocates about mental healthcare resources in Pennsylvania. 

The first roundtable discussion, planned for Friday at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, is open only to media and invited guests. 

Wolf said the campaign mirrors the commonwealth’s coordinated response to the opioid epidemic, which saw state officials travel across the Commonwealth to meet with community-based addiction treatment providers.

The effort may also include public service announcements and advertisements encouraging Pennsylvanians to seek treatment for mental illnesses, Wolf said. 

In addition to the public campaign, Wolf is also asking a wide range of state agencies to redouble their efforts to promote treatment and increase access to mental health services. 

For the Department of Labor and Industry, that means studying shortages in Pennsylvania’s mental health workforce. The Department of Education, meanwhile, will identify new ways to get mental health providers certified so it can increase the number of social workers in Pennsylvania schools. 

The Departments of Military and Veterans Affairs and Aging will also review their programs to promote trainings, awareness and action among community stakeholders, Wolf said.

But the most significant outcomes of the new effort may arise from the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Insurance, which will review health insurance plans and pursue new regulations to ensure they treat mental health services similarly to other forms of healthcare.

The Department of Human Services will also take steps to create incentives for insurers and providers to offer fairly priced mental health services to consumers, but Wolf could not say on Thursday what specific incentives might look like.

A 2017 study by the University of Southern California found that 1 million Pennsylvanians struggle with mental illnesses, but the state has a shortage of mental healthcare providers, especially in rural areas. 

The study, which Wolf cited Thursday, also found that people with mental illness in Pennsylvania are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. Incarcerating people with serious mental illnesses costs the state $140 million a year, researchers said. 

Even so, officials from the Department of Corrections were not among those who joined Wolf at the press conference on Thursday.

The governor said the department had a role to play in the initiative, given the high number of inmates in state prisons with mental illnesses. But he could not immediately say how they would be involved.

His spokesman said in an email on Thursday evening that corrections officials would “certainly be part of the multi-agency effort,” but that the administration’s main goal was to improve the circumstances that land mentally ill people in prison in the first place.

“The hope is that expanding access and awareness of mental health care elsewhere will help reduce those with mental health struggles from entering the criminal justice system at all,” Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said.

Wolf’s announcement was met with approval from healthcare industry groups on Thursday, including those representing aging citizens and Pennsylvania’s hospitals. 

“As one of the grayest states in the nation, access to critical mental care for seniors is increasingly important,” said Adam Marles, CEO and President of LeadingAge PA, a group representing non-profit senior care providers. “[We] look forward to working with the Wolf administration… to help improve the lives of Pennsylvania seniors who are fighting [dementia.]”

“The hospital community welcomes Governor Wolf’s leadership in shaping the public debate about the urgent steps needed to help Pennsylvanians gain better access to behavioral health services,” Andy Carter, CEO and president of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “His announcement today identifies several key areas that need our attention to improve the availability of care for patients.”

Wolf said the initiative would not require any new funding. He also said it was premature to interpret the effort as a sign of what might come in the first draft of his 2020-2021 budget, which he will present to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Feb. 4.