The last few years have brought about an increase in attention to mental health, especially for those dealing with issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mental illness has been prevalent in the United States for decades; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than half of Americans live with a mental health disorder, a figure that continues to rise. Various types of trauma, such as loneliness and anxiety to substance abuse and the loss of loved ones, have pushed more people to seek treatment.
However, finding support for mental health is complicated, since the clinical system is closely entwined with the legal system. This has therefore led to a growing need for mental health attorneys and legal advocates on Long Island.
“We have seen a substantial increase in the number of clients and their family members who seek our mental health services at the firm,” says Laura Brancato, a partner at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone, LLP in Mineola, who specializes in mental health law. Brancato attributes increased demand for mental health services to issues related to the recent pandemic. “We certainly have seen long-term impacts of COVID, including social isolation and loss of employment, and the related mental health challenges.”
Paola Arango, staff attorney in the Mental Health Law Project at Nassau Suffolk Legal Services in Islandia, is another legal professional working to meet this demand. “I wanted to focus my career on helping the marginalized groups in our community,” Arango says.
Understanding the struggles endured by those who are disenfranchised is what makes attorneys such as Arango particularly suited for practicing mental health law.
“The Mental Health Law Project at Nassau Suffolk Law Services provides holistic legal services,” she explains. The project has expanded their staff to better advocate for clients to preserve affordable housing, Medicaid or Medicare coverage, or access to benefits through the Department of Social Services or the Social Security Administration, among other services. “Essentially, mental health legal services encompass a wide variety of civil legal services that don’t fall under medical malpractice or healthcare.”
Others in the field agree that the scope of mental health law requires unique specialization. “Having been in this practice area for 10 years, I see that my undergraduate education in psychology has served me just as well as my law degree,” says Jamie Rosen, a mental health attorney at Meister, Seelig & Fein in Jericho. “My practice requires client counseling during extremely difficult family crises,” Rosen says of her work, which often involves representing individuals and families of those suffering from serious mental illnesses.
When advocating for those living with mental health disabilities, a common adversary can be the effects of the illness itself, which may prevent people from seeking services they need, Rosen says. “Due to the nature of their condition, these individuals are often unable to understand and/or appreciate their diagnosis, the severity of their symptoms and their need for long-term treatment,” she explains.
Rosen says a negative stigma associated with mental illness is part of what discourages many from finding help. “In many cultures, seeking professional help for mental illness may be counter to their values,” she says. “Some families have a bad experience with a provider or institution and begin to distrust the system. Others experience discrimination at work or elsewhere. Portrayal of mental illness and guardianship proceedings in the media can be misleading, preventing people from pursuing treatment or legal intervention.”
Those who are determined to find help also encounter problems. “Even when an individual has insight, accepts their need for mental health treatment, and is willing to participate, it is still difficult to find care and stay connected to care,” Rosen says. “My clients face issues including a lack of available providers, an inability to get timely appointments, lack of beds available in a facility, inadequate or denial of insurance coverage and extraordinary out-of-pocket costs.”
In fact, many experience obstacles affording care, as those who are in treatment for mental illness very often find themselves paying out-of-pocket for basic services such as counseling and rehabilitation, forcing them to navigate the complexities of applying for financial assistance.
Challenges to accessing care can lead to problems for those who are seeking other services, says John Batanchiev, supervising attorney at Nassau Suffolk Law Services. “The under-diagnosis and/or misdiagnosis of mental illness in our clients has a big impact on our ability to represent them,” he says. Batanchiev explains that without proper documentation of mental health disabilities, many are unable to request reasonable housing accommodations or qualify for benefits.
The inadequacy of the court system may also present challenges to accessing care. “The law struggles to keep up with the realities of mental health treatment,” Brancato of Meltzer Lippe says. “Court proceedings can be lengthy and expensive, which makes necessary resources unavailable to some clients and their families.”
Brancato believes a more streamlined process for courts hearing cases involving mental health would be very helpful in providing effective treatment. “It would be ideal if matters involving mental health could all be heard before the same judge, so that a comprehensive treatment approach could be explored,” she says.
Fortunately, help may be on the horizon: Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 2024 state budget includes a $1 billion plan to transform New York’s mental health system. Attorneys are optimistic about the changes.
“[Hochul] is rightfully focusing on expanding and funding outpatient programs, addressing the shortcomings of hospital admissions and discharge planning, and funding the creation of supportive and/or supervised housing,” Rosen says of the plan which, she adds, will have a “significant impact” on her ability to advocate for her clients and their loved ones.
Brancato welcomes the news as well. “I am hopeful that these funds will be used toward community-based mental health programming, treatment, housing and other vital initiatives,” she says. “Treatment should be readily accessible for all who desire it, and long-term community based support is vital if we are ever going to make needed changes in mental health treatment.”