Attorney General James speaks at a public hearing on the ‘mental health crisis in western New York’.

Fri, 01/20/2023 3:55 p.m

Dozens of testimonies provided to the OAG describe mental health care challenges in western New York statewide

Submitted on behalf of New York Attorney General Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James held a public hearing on mental health care in western New York. Dozens of affected individuals, healthcare providers, elected officials and community members gave testimony about their challenges in accessing and delivering mental health care and services.

The testimonies covered a wide range of issues, including but not limited to underfunding of community health groups and health facilities, gaps in coordinated care, understaffing and the stigma of mental health care. This was Attorney General James’ second public hearing on mental health services in New York, following a hearing in New York City in June 2022.

Attorney General James is encouraging New Yorkers who have faced problems or obstacles in accessing or providing mental health care to submit written testimony to their office by Jan. 20.

Through these hearings, Attorney General James aims to gather input directly from urban, suburban and rural communities across the state to inform legislative solutions and enforcement actions.

“The past few months have been particularly devastating for western New York, leaving many without adequate resources and care to meet their mental health needs,” James said. “These hearings are critical to our efforts to improve mental health services for New Yorkers, break down barriers to access mental health care, and help communities heal. Thank you to everyone who has shared their personal and often painful experiences at this hearing. The testimonies and data collected by my office will help us navigate our state’s mental health crisis and ensure that appropriate and culturally competent care is available to all who need it.”

Twenty-one people have provided oral testimony, and nearly 100 people have filed written testimony with the Attorney General’s Office (OAG). Written testimonies are still accepted online to this day and all testimonies are published.

The livestream event can be viewed here.

James’ first public hearing was held in New York City in June 2022 and focused primarily on issues affecting the Downstate region. Dozens of affected family members, healthcare providers, attorneys and elected officials testified at the New York City public hearing.

“Too often, mental illness is talked about and what needs to be done to improve the lives of those who suffer, but nothing is done. Instead of empty words, action must be taken to show that New York State truly cares about the thousands of people who suffer from mental illness every day and the impact it has on not only them but families as well , friends and society,” said Elisa and Joe Tobia, affected family members who testified at the hearing. “Although we lost our 30-year-old son to schizoaffective disorder, Attorney General James’ commitment gives us hope for the future. We cannot thank Attorney General James enough for taking the time to listen and for being willing to take action to finally help those who so desperately need it.”

“Quality mental health services are an essential part of the overall health of the community, but access to these services is not always self-evident,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. “I thank Attorney General James for hosting this hearing to gather input from individuals and agencies who deal with mental health issues on a daily basis and gain valuable perspectives that can help improve access nationwide.”

“As I work to improve mental health outcomes in my community and across the state in my capacity as Senate Mental Health Committee Chair, I am encouraged that Attorney General Letitia James is committed to improving care in western New York interested,” said New York State Senator Samra Brouk. “The Attorney General has unique powers to implement legislative and enforcement solutions, and I look forward to working with her to address unmet needs in our communities.”

“There’s a stigma around mental health,” said Erie County Legislative Chair April NM Baskin. “This stigma manifests in our personal lives, where we don’t feel comfortable discussing or acknowledging our own struggles, and this stigma also manifests at the community level, where we avert our eyes. But we can only begin to heal by defining what ails us, and we can only begin to develop public policies when we acknowledge that this problem is real and far-reaching. I commend Attorney General James for having the courage to insist that we address this issue and for creating a space for the public to share their stories. This work is uncomfortable, but it is essential.”

“Mental health is just as important as physical health. As our communities face an increased need for mental health services, nurses and healthcare professionals have seen hospital systems across the state closing inpatient mental health and detoxification services,” said Nancy Hagans, RN, BSN, CCRN, President of the New York State Nurses Association . “Now is not the time to cut back on mental health services. We thank Attorney General James for hosting this forum to discuss the challenges of accessing care and look forward to real solutions to ensure our communities can heal both spiritually and physically.”

“Too many New Yorkers are struggling to access the continuum of crisis, inpatient, community support and housing they need and deserve,” said Harvey Rosenthal, CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. “We see firsthand every day how damaging it is when these services are underfunded and understaffed or unavailable. A big thank you to Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss challenges and find real solutions to help our neighbors in need.”

“Thank you to Attorney General Letitia James for convening this important public hearing. Changing a system requires a coordinated effort, must involve consumers and peers in the solution, and will only be successful if mental health is addressed at all levels,” said Melinda DuBois, executive director of the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York. “Based on the trauma experienced by the western New York community, we deserve better. MHA is grateful to be part of the solution.”

“Too many western New Yorkers are struggling to get essential mental health services in times of crisis. The DCS have seen firsthand how detrimental it is to a person’s recovery when facilities are underfunded, understaffed and unable to provide adequate treatment in critical times of need,” said Laura J. Kelemen, LCSW-R (DCS, Niagara County) , Chair of the New York State Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors. “I want to sincerely thank Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss these challenges and offer the state real solutions that will help our most vulnerable to improve and thrive.”

“Too many New Yorkers and a disproportionate number of people of color are resorting to some form of behavioral health care only as a result of a major crisis. And even then, our initial contact with the system remains limited to police, emergency rooms, and hospital beds, said Chacku Mathai, a member of the New York State Behavioral Health Services Advisory Council. “We need to move away from the failed investments and strategies of the past and create a systemic shift towards community-based hospital diversion services such as peer run and voluntary outreach, as well as engagement and housing first initiatives. I want to thank Attorney General James for bringing us together to discuss challenges and find real solutions so we can help those in need.”

Attorney General James was joined for the duration of the hearing by First Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Levy, Assistant Attorney General Michael Reisman, and Assistant Attorney General and Special Assistant to First Assistant Attorney General Gina Bull.