On Jan. 9, Gov. Hochul delivered her annual State of the State Address, in which she called for expanded support for individuals with acute mental health needs as part of New York’s 2025 budget. Proposed elements include more psychiatric hospital beds, more coordination between mental health professionals and law enforcement, improved mental health admission and discharge procedures for in-patient care settings, more funding for mental health courts and new community-based teams, and increased supportive housing.
Her plan couldn’t come at a better time.
As a mental health attorney practicing for decades in the State of New York, I have seen escalating needs among family members of loved ones with serious mental illness. My office receives nonstop calls from families—from Long Island, New York State and across the country—desperate for mental health legal counsel and additional services, and anxious about the wellbeing of their loved ones and themselves.
Their worries are more than understandable.
For decades, our social safety net for individuals who struggle with debilitating mental illness has been steadily deteriorating—a trend that has accelerated since 2020. The pandemic spurred hospitals to repurpose psychiatric beds for COVID patients, which drove many clinicians out of the healthcare workforce, thus spurring mistrust of congregate living facilities. It also encouraged co-habitation among family members who weren’t previously living together, and fostered feelings of high stress and anxiety that can trigger mental health crises among those with underlying conditions.
This confluence of events has left family members with dire choices. Too many of my clients have completely upended their lives to house and care for loved ones with mental health conditions requiring more care, support and expertise than they can possibly provide. They do this because so few alternatives are available within a system that—while improving—remains highly imperfect and difficult to navigate.
For example, the state’s 42 mental health courts operate at such a high capacity that attorneys petitioning them experience waits even in emergency situations. Improving their operations and ability to connect individuals with necessary treatment can be absolutely life saving and keep vulnerable people out of our criminal justice system.
Hospitals struggling to compete in today’s challenging healthcare environment have become revolving doors, through which psychiatric patients cycle in and out, but are not consistently connected with long-term treatment options. Improved admission and discharge procedures will ensure such patients are stabilized and connected to sufficient support services before they re-enter our communities.
Additionally, supportive housing options are especially scarce, with Long Island’s high property costs adding to the difficulty of setting aside homes especially for individuals with mental illness. More government-funded specialized housing will be a lifeline for families who seek out the services inherent in my practice, giving them the opportunity to reclaim their lives while continuing to support their loved ones.
The question becomes will New York State make it a priority to put in place Gov. Hochul’s recommendations amidst competing interests and constant budget pressures?
The families who reach out to my mental health law practice—many frantic day and night—are counting on their representatives to do the right thing, and provide the assistance their loved ones need.
It’s time for New York State to re-commit itself to protecting the most vulnerable among us, starting with those with serious mental health challenges.
Carolyn Reinach Wolf is executive director at Long Island-based law firm Abrams Fensterman, where she serves as director of the firm’s Mental Health Law Practice.