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Another Voice: Early intervention key to mental health

By Kenneth P. Houseknecht

The Erie County Legislature recently approved an additional $1 million to battle the opioid epidemic, which is ravaging our community. New York State and the federal government are also devoting substantial resources – billions of dollars – to this crisis. Bravo! All good steps.

But smoke detectors cost a lot less than waiting until you have a five-alarm fire. A lot less.

With alcohol and substance abuse – and mental health – we often wait until a situation becomes a crisis, and then we are forced to act. That narrows the range of options, drives up costs and narrows the probability of successful outcomes.

It’s time to think and act differently. Time to invest in education, awareness, wellness, prevention, early detection and early intervention activities.

We understand this in the world of physical health. Employers and insurance companies now cover the costs of smoking cessation, weight loss, lowering your cholesterol, fitness activities, massage therapy and a host of other wellness activities. That’s not just altruism at work; it’s a realization that healthy employees/subscribers cost less money in the long run. Why can’t that same logic be applied to mental health?

We can always find the money when something erupts into a full-blown crisis, as we should. But unless and until we start to think and act more strategically, we will forever lurch from crisis to crisis.

As a volunteer and employee of the Mental Health Association of Erie County, I’ve dealt with a wide range of mental health issues for more than 35 years. But very few of those conversations have anything to do with “health.” Nearly all of them deal with the most severe and persistent losses of health, the people affected, appropriate responses and the associated costs, which are substantial.

When we meet with organizations – large and small, private or public, startup or well established – we pointedly tell them: we’re not having a discussion on whether or not you are going to spend money on mental health. You are. We’re simply deciding where and how that money is going to be spent.

We can spend money on education, awareness, wellness, prevention, early detection and early intervention activities, or we can do as we’ve always done, wait until small issues become larger ones, easily addressed problems become more difficult and small investments give way to very costly commitments.

So I ask again: Is it better to install smoke detectors or wait until the building is engulfed in flames?

It’s time to bend the arc of the future. Time to get in front of problems before they race out of control. Time to start thinking and acting differently.

Lives hang in the balance.

The costs of indecision and inaction – both in lives and dollars – are staggering.

My mother was right: a stitch in time saves nine. Indeed!

Kenneth P. Houseknecht is executive director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County.

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