Commentary: Better mental health care starts with workforce investments

There is no shortage of conversations surrounding mental health — how we can reach those who may be struggling, how care looks different depending on a person’s age, race, or gender identity, and most recently the intersection of mental health and homelessness. But until New York begins to prioritize the needs of its mental health workforce, we won’t be able to take the necessary steps to ensure that every New Yorker has the care they deserve.

New York state has nowhere near the amount of providers, beds, or supportive housing necessary to address the mental health of its residents. Decades of divestment have resulted in a mental health system at its breaking point, and a workforce that is both overlooked and undervalued.

This has serious consequences for New York families, many of whom are already struggling with lengthy waitlists and a reduced access to care. Recent reports describe vacancy rates as high as 40 percent in direct-care positions — positions that needed to be filled long before the rising demand for mental health care we see today. And now, as conversations seemingly revolve around how and when a person should receive care, involuntary commitment proposals risk putting even more strain on a system that is already failing.

So how do we move forward?

When it comes to budget and policy decisions, we must start viewing a fully staffed mental health workforce as essential. New York has an obligation to take every action possible to shore up its workforce by ensuring that employees receive wages that are reflective of the importance of their work. When we offer employees low wages, long hours, and difficult work, we may as well be showing them the door.

There are several initiatives that can make sure that mental health workers are treated with the dignity they deserve all while expanding access to care. Primarily, we must ensure that these workers are paid fairly for their work. Prior to a 1 percent increase in 2021, state mental health workers hadn’t received a cost-of-living adjustment in more than a decade. The state has the opportunity to automate the cost-of-living adjustment process in 2023 by passing S9615, which would create an annual wage increase tied to inflation. Simple measures, like ensuring basic adjustments to wages, can help retain the workforce during this critical period.

New York can’t afford not to invest in mental health in 2023. The responsibility is ours to make sure that we do so in a way that not only preserves the dignity of those living with mental illness, but rightfully invests in those doing this crucial work.

State Sen. Samra Brouk of Rochester represents the 55th state Senate District. She is the chair of the Senate Committee on Mental Health.