Candidates address Connecticut mental health issues in Norwich forum

Paul Formica, East Lyme first selectman and candidate for state Senate, right, joins a host of other local candidates Wednesday as they gather in Norwich for a political forum on mental health issues in Connecticut.
Paul Formica, East Lyme first selectman and candidate for state Senate, right, joins a host of other local candidates Wednesday as they gather in Norwich for a political forum on mental health issues in Connecticut.

Norwich - Services for people with mental illness, supportive housing, reducing discrimination and the criminalization of mental illness were main topics addressed by 20 candidates for state legislature Wednesday in a forum hosted by the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board.

Moderator Jan VanTassel, co-chairwoman of the Connecticut Keep the Promise Coalition, rotated questions among participants that touched on each topic - often eliciting responses from candidates that the issues all are linked together.

Facing an audience of about 30 people - many of them supporters of mental health services in the region - the candidates were unanimous in expressing the importance of providing services for people with mental illness. They differed slightly on some specific points.

Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin, Republican candidate for the 47th House District, said the state missed an opportunity to address services for people with mental illness after the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown. Instead, he said, the state focused on guns. The legislature instead should have consolidated mental health services to address better detection, treatment and education.

"Newtown was a mental health moment," Dubitsky said, "a great opportunity for the state legislature to do something."

Dubitsky's opponent, incumbent Democrat Brian Sear of Canterbury, also said the state needs to put all mental health services in one system - "prenatal through life," Sear said. Sear thanked the ERMHB for providing extensive educational materials prior to Wednesday's forum, and said all agencies, judges, police departments, educators and employers need the same education.

State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, and several other candidates were asked to address questions of funding for supportive housing and reducing homelessness. Hewett said New London has "plenty" of housing and is running out of room. He said other towns have to expand housing opportunities for people with mental illness.

Mike France of Ledyard, Republican candidate in the 42nd House District, said the state needs to work with owners of vacant or underutilitized rental houses to provide opportunities for supportive housing.

"The benefits to consumers are huge," France said.

France's opponent, incumbent Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, said a bill he successfully championed will help agencies work together for combined services. Starting Jan. 1, all nine council of governments regions will have regional human services coordinating councils that will include mental health issues.

"Ending up in the criminal system is clearly not the answer," Bowles said.

That issue, too, became a repeated theme, as candidates relayed some of their personal experiences with the current mental health "landscape" in Connecticut. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, is a retired correction officer. She said 30 percent of the state's prison population suffers from some form of mental illness, and prisons have become a replacement for mental illness hospitals.

Marc Balestracci, Democratic candidate in the 38th state House District and a Waterford police officer, said he is trained as a crisis intervention officer. Even so, he said, encounters with people with mental illness usually "don't end well."

He said police often either arrest them or take them to the hospital because they don't know what to do with people in crisis. He agreed with calls to expand supportive housing, early adult services and education.

Balestracci's Republican opponent is Waterford Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen McCarty. She agreed with expanding early education and bringing awareness about mental illness into the schools in the same way schools are addressing bullying.

With all the discussion about expanding services and housing, Republican 19th Senate District candidate Steven Everett of Columbia said the way to pay for these expanded expenses would be to reduce homelessness. He said homelessness costs the state much more than housing and support services.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, agreed that tight state funds will become an issue as advocates discuss the need to expand mental health services, jobs and access to transportation, housing, treatment and coordinated services.

He said the state closed large institutional housing to save money, and community-based services never filled the gap.

"Advocates in the room here are going to be faced with a significant deficit," Jutila warned. "You're going to have to fight" for funding.

c.bessette@theday.com


Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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