BALSAM — State budget cuts to mental health funding have led to the discontinuation of needed services in Haywood County.
Most recently, a 24-hour behavioral health urgent care program at The Balsam Center was closed due to reductions in state funding, widening the gap between care providers and the services people seek.
The Balsam Center offers aid for mental health and substance use struggles during working hours, now that its 24-hour wing has been defunded.
Prior to its discontinuation, the center’s all-hours urgent care program served 669 individuals in 2019, and saw 185 patients through March of 2020, said Ron Ross, Regional Director of Operations for Appalachian Community Services, which oversees the center off of U.S. 19-23, near the Jackson County line.
“In this area, we lack the resources,” Ross said. “It’s something we’ve always struggled with in this region, we don’t have the number of treatment facilities in this area for adults or children.”
To run The Balsam Center’s all-hours urgent care program, which started operation in 2018, Appalachian Community Services used funding from Vaya Health, Haywood County’s local management entity for mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services.
Since 2016, Vaya Health has lost more than $52 million in state funding, said Vaya representative Shelly Foreman to the county commissioners during a meeting Aug. 3.
“I can’t minimize the impact of the continued state funding reductions in eroding the services available across North Carolina,” Foreman said to the board.
In addition to providing round-the-clock assistance to people experiencing mental health crises, Ross said The Balsam Center’s urgent care wing also aided law enforcement by taking involuntary commitments.
“Now they’re having to go elsewhere,” Ross said.
In Haywood County, the only other 24-hour facilities for law enforcement to take involuntary commitments are the hospital’s behavioral health unit, or the detention center.
Budget cut, need remains
With studies showing that one in five American adults experiences a mental illness, the need for behavioral health services is not going to disappear, no matter how much state lawmakers cut budgets.
“The need is there. The need doesn’t go away,” Ross said. “Just because we cut the funding doesn’t mean we cut the issue that the money was funding. When we have funding cuts, the need is going to come up somewhere else.”
Some mental health problems will go untreated without available services. Other struggles such as substance use disorder see the need for services appear in the Haywood County Detention Center.
“A lot of times we criminalize mental health or substance abuse, rather than treat it,” Ross said. “We miss an opportunity there.”
According to a study conducted in 2016, a random sampling of 283 Haywood County Detention Center inmates showed that 85 percent had at least one substance use disorder, and 67 percent had at least one severe substance use disorder.
Haywood’s prison has effective medical and faith-based programs for inmates suffering from substance use disorder, but those services are only available to people committed to the prison.
People seeking treatment for their addictions from outside the jail will find help more difficult to find as the state continues to cut funding, causing services to subside.
“We don’t want the best treatment in town to be in jail,” Ross said. “We want there to be both options.”
The Balsam Center still sees walk-in patients during normal business hours, but the need for assistance with mental health troubles often comes to light at odd hours of the night, and by morning a person may be back to their usual cycle of harmful behavior, making 24-hour access to treatment paramount.
“It’s about the people, not the numbers,” Ross said. “It’s easy to shift things around or cut funding for those numbers, but they’re family members, community members — they’re people.”