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Susan Rae Helgeland, Published March 11 2013

Letter: Mistake to cut services

The North Dakota House of Representatives cut $3.6 million out of the executive recommendations in the governor’s budget for behavioral (mental health and substance use) health services. Do we have gaps in behavioral health services in North Dakota? Do we have parity in the delivery of behavioral health services when compared to other chronic health disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.? Do we have too many individuals with behavioral health issues in jail? These questions need to be asked and answered. I have been advocating for community-based services for more than 49 years. Parity should have been accomplished by now? I am not giving up!

The existence of the Oil Patch has only increased the need for and the disparity of the delivery of behavioral services. There are supportive services in Cass County such as the Gladys Ray Shelter, the Cooper House, the Community Churches Overflow Homeless Program, etc. Other North Dakota communities send individuals to Cass County because these services are available. We must look at what services are effective and advocate replicating them in other North Dakota communities because Cass County is at capacity and unable to serve more individuals.

A comprehensive study of all aspects of the delivery of behavioral health services is long overdue. We should bring a variety of stakeholders, including advocates and consumers, to the table to take a hard look at the gaps and needs for services. A plan for a more effective behavioral health care delivery system must be created. I am encouraged that Sens. Judy Lee (R) and Tim Mathern (D) plus other legislators have co-sponsored this kind of study in Senate Bill 2243. It has bipartisan support. As Executive Director of Mental Health America of North Dakota and Project Director of the North Dakota Behavioral Health Network, I endorse the concept of the bill. It provides for a legislative management study of the behavioral health care needs. The behavioral health care system should depend upon strong partnerships between public and private sectors for maximum effectiveness and equal access to care.

It has been demonstrated that comprehensive community-based behavioral health support services help individuals to maintain recovery, reduce emergency room visits, prevent more expensive crisis services and reduce the numbers of people with behavioral health issues in prison. These services include an expansion of the successful and cost-effective North Dakota peer support and 2-1-1 programs. It is time to meet the behavioral health needs of individuals, implement parity and participate in more cost effective and beneficial treatment strategies.

The governor’s budget recommendations for behavioral health must be restored by the Senate during the remainder of this session. We also need to support a strategic study of the behavioral health issues in our state as well as demonstrate a “political will” to implement parity related to behavioral health. Depression, bipolar, addiction, schizophrenia, etc. are chronic disorders and are not going away. Heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, etc., are chronic disorders and are not going away. Equal opportunity to access treatment or parity is the answer. We must do it. Join me in the effort. Check out www.mhand.org.


Helgeland, Fargo, is an advocate for community-based behavioral health services.