“The safety net is stretched to the max.’’ Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the agency that oversees mental health and substance abuse services, gave that... Budget cuts for mental health, disabilities alarm patient advocates

“The safety net is stretched to the max.’’

Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the agency that oversees mental health and substance abuse services, gave that stark assessment in January to state legislators who were considering budget cuts to her department.

Now, even deeper cuts are on the table.

Georgia’s budget plans of just a few months ago have been overturned by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) last week outlined $172 million in budget reductions for the upcoming fiscal year. The recommendations come as state agencies respond to Gov. Brian Kemp’s mandate to find ways to reduce spending by 14 percent.

Georgia Senate budget subcommittees will take up the recommendations from agency leaders this week. “We have to deal with the cards we have on the table right now,” said the new Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia), according to the Capitol Beat News Service.

The cuts loom even as the coronavirus crisis has sparked new mental health stresses among Americans.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found more than half of Americans — 56 percent — reported that worry or stress related to the outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect. Another report, from the Well Being Trust, said the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation and fears about the virus. (Here’s a recent GHN article on increased anxiety.)

The DBHDD budget includes reductions of:

** $6 million for school-based Apex mental health services.

** $3 million for the Marcus Autism Center.

** $10 million for adult mental health services.

** $13 million for family support services for people with developmental disabilities.

A closed Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome


The budget recommendations as outlined “will increase the costs down the road for increased ER visits, homelessness, institutionalization and incarceration,’’ said Susan Goico, an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney.

The properties of closed hospitals in Rome and Thomasville will not be adapted for other use but will be left idle, for a savings of $2.5 million.

Agency employees will have furloughs of 24 days. Dozens of jobs will be eliminated, but it is believed that many of these positions are currently vacant.

Advocacy groups, when asked about the recommended cuts, predicted many negative consequences.

“We know that prior to the pandemic, more than 40 percent of children and youth were not able to access the mental health services they need, and many kids with developmental disabilities likewise struggled to access services and supports,’’ said Polly McKinney of advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children.

“The state, however, was starting to make significant progress in addressing these needs with school-based health and school-based mental health, both of which improve kids’ life trajectories, are more cost-effective, and actually save lives.’’

Many children and youths will return to school while dealing with mental health challenges, McKinney added. “We just hope that as our lawmakers wrestle with this economic downturn that they will keep kids front of mind” when they work through the budget.

Georgia’s renowned peer services for mental health will see significant cuts, as will drug treatment courts.

“Social isolation, unemployment, loss of health insurance, food insecurities and other precipitating risk factors will likely exacerbate mental health [needs] for more Georgians and increase the number of individuals who will need treatment and crisis support to address suicide and substance abuse,’’ said Jewell Gooding, executive director for Mental Health America of Georgia.


For people in substance abuse recovery, a range of services will be pared, including residential beds for people in treatment.

“They are Death Star-like blows to the Georgia recovery community which will cost lives, increase crime, hurt families, weaken the workforce and threaten jobs,’’ said Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Isolation is the No. 1 factor that hampers recovery from addiction and mental illness, Campbell said.

“Combined with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, it is essential Georgia address the inevitable mental illness and [addiction] recovery issues which will grow exponentially as a result of the current pandemic,’’ she added.

“There are over 800,000 people across Georgia in recovery from addiction who can attest to the benefits of the types of services and supports that are apparently on the chopping block.’’

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

  • TaTa-Nisha Frazier, CPS-MH, AD

    May 29, 2020 #2 Author

    Everytime I see a post from Georgia Health News.com I see this man with a bottle sitting on the curb. Why? We don’t need to see images like that. It does not represent the broad sprectrum of people who are addicted or in recovery. Can you please consider shariing some of the thousands of pictures of people living in recovery as a beacon of hope. Not the very stigmatized photo of a man drunk on a curb. I am a mother in long-term mental health and substance use recovery. I am the evidence that recovery looks like a mother working every day to support her family. I am grateful to your editorials that speak the positive and negative impacts Georgia Behavioral health concerns on a public platform. Please know that I am grateful. FYI someone else brought this to my attention from a previous article. Because I was featured in the article I did not really notice how stigmatized this was. I did not say anything because I always believe that people are not always aware of how they participate in stigmatizing. Now that I have learned more about advocacy and recovery language. I feel empowered to ask if you would consider taking a look at using a photo that does not stigmatize us I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks for allowing space for me to voice our concerns.


  • Myrtice Moreland

    June 2, 2020 #3 Author

    I’m not only a recovering addict from drugs and alcohol but also a victim of such trauma that I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar depression. My healing from both my mental illness and my drug addiction ignited when I found some peer support groups and attended meetings where we could share our hope, strength and unity with each other. Due to my unforeseen life recovery, I have now been termed nonpyschotic and I still yearn to not seek further recovery but also help those who feel helpless and isolated. During this world’s pandemic peer support services and mental health services are essentially needed to curb the diaster that seems most evident. Sadly those who suffer from mental illnesses are already ostracized, so if their reprieves from sick thinking and feelings is reduced, what message are being sent to us? Our health isn’t important? We must be the sacrifice for the greater good? When our lives matter? In conclusion, I realize that we are in some troubling times and changes are needed; however, it’s unfit to cut costs by giving those who already feel second class less support. Yes, I’ve been diagnosed mentally ill and given my life to the disease of addiction but after seeking recovery, I have gained not only a MBA, clean bill of mental health but also a life that I’d only dreamed of. Please reconsider cutting short others of the ability to recovery from life’s challenges.


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