When the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, legislators representing a shaken state in the wake of the Newtown tragedy will likely discuss mental health initiatives, including whether or not to spend more money.
The reaction is understandable. Many wonder whether the murder of 27 people on Dec. 14, and the 20-year-old killer's suicide, could have been avoided. The answers are not clear, and won't be for a long time — if ever.
But before legislators spend more money on mental health services on which the state already spends billions of dollars, they owe it to taxpayers to obtain straight answers to these two questions:
•How much does the state spend on mental health services already, and on what?
•And what percentage of state-provided mental health services are backed by scientific evidence that they can bring about positive outcomes?
Mental health services are scattered across state government, offered not only through the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, but the departments of Children and Families, Correction, Social Services, and Education. The federal government estimated in 2005 that Connecticut spent more than $2 billion on mental health services. It's probably more now; during the 2012 fiscal year, just one department, mantal health and Addiction Services, spent nearly $600 million on mental health.
So lawmakers must know the answer to "How much?" or they are flying blind.
The answer to "How effective?" is crucial, but more complicated. State mental health services should be grounded in evidence-based practice, backed by a variety of studies that show they are capable of bringing about significant, positive change. The outcome of treatment should benefit the individual — helping him achieve a life in the community — and benefit society in measurable ways.
Connecticut should follow the example of Oregon, which years ago tackled this head-on.
In 2005, Oregon implemented a state law giving state agencies four years to ensure that 75 percent of state-funded mental health services were evidence-based. Before the law passed, less than 25 percent of state services had such scientific backing. Now three-quarters of services meet that standard.
Although it's too early to tell, there may be a correlation between this new approach and the fewer psychiatric hospitalizations and lower rate of repeat criminal behavior that Oregon is seeing. Just as important, clients are getting the standard of service they deserve.
It's time that Connecticut did the same — starting with lawmakers asking the right questions.