NY Attorney General examining mental health system, seeking to stop dysfunction and bring reform

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — New York Attorney General Letitia James was in Buffalo Wednesday hosting a forum on mental health.

With so many serious issues facing Western New York in the past year – many are questioning whether enough resources are available.

The need for more mental health resources was a theme heard throughout the forum. The state’s top prosecutor says she’s looking to improve the system and bring reforms.

“We are seeking to root out areas of dysfunction and discuss potential avenues for reform and then bring it to the appropriate individuals or in the case of our office pursue it legally,” James said.

In WNY, its been a year of the unthinkable — from a once in a generation blizzard to a racially-motivated mass shooting — five children dying in a house fire on New Year’s Eve and Damar Hamlin going into cardiac arrest. Many are wondering what’s being done to address the mental health crisis.

“One of the greatest obstacles we face is an unrelenting decline in the number of inpatient psychiatric beds available for our most vulnerable,” James said.

The attorney general says more than 800 psychiatric beds statewide haven’t returned since the pandemic hit. Last week, in Governor Kathy Hochul’s State of the State address, she proposed adding 1,000 inpatient psychiatric beds across the state and creating 3,500 housing units for people in need of mental health treatment.

More resources is something Brandon Orr wants to see. His sister Jennifer passed away two months ago after years of battling mental health issues.

“She was brilliant and lit up every room she entered into with a big smile and one of her famous hugs,” Orr said.

The attorney general also called out how mental health services are offered within ECMC’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, or CPEP, which News 4 Investigates has been reporting on.

“We’ve been told stories of children left behind at the emergency department for behavioral or mental health disturbances, they are left behind to live in hospitals because community-based alternatives and services are inadequate and understaffed,” James said.

One of the issues CPEP faces is the inability to discharge patients to organizations in the community, because they are short-staffed as well. ECMC says it is working with the state Nurses Association to fill open positions and ECMC is temporarily hiring travel nurses.

“It is often because they cannot release individuals who need to be released because there is no place for them to go in the community, they can’t just be released on their own and it is a concern our Department of Mental Health has been watching it for some time,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Poloncarz adds that Erie County’s Office of Health Equity will begin offering mental health first aid training for 2,000 people in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, News 4 Investigates looks into patient care at CPEP.

Here’s some local mental health resources: Erie County SMART, Crisis Services, and here’s agencies that Erie County partners with. You can also submit your own testimony through this link.

Jeff Preval is an award-winning anchor and reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2021. See more of his work here.

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