friends sitting in a park
Photo by Mental Health America (MHA) on

Georgia has a “golden opportunity” to transform its behavioral health system building on reforms adopted during this year’s legislative session, an alliance of mental health organizations reported Monday.

The Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership, a coalition of more than 50 groups, released a new set of policy recommendations during a news conference at the state Capitol.

The recommendations outline nine “foundational elements” of Georgia’s behavioral health system, including early intervention, community care, equity and a continued emphasis on parity.

Each element is designed to support the other. For example, increased access to behavioral health providers can help make sure children are getting early intervention, said state Sen. Sally Harrell (D-40, Atlanta).

Harrell described the pain of struggling to find care for a child in crisis and being told to wait several months for an appointment.

“Waiting for two to three months for a child in crisis is not mental health parity,” she said. “Those problems don’t go away. … Those problems stay there and come back later in worse form.”  

Georgia Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-82, Decatur) concurred with the need for early treatment for behavioral health issues. She pointed to around 600 children currently housed in intensive psychiatric treatment beds in the state.

“How many of those intensive beds could have been prevented by a better continuum of service, one that’s more timely, one’s that more immediate, one that’s more community-based?” Oliver asked.

Oliver was a co-sponsor, along with Rep. Todd Jones (R-25, South Forsyth), of a mental health reform package lawmakers passed this year.

Insurance companies’ networks often fall short in ways that deter people from getting care, said Peter Nunn, a board member of the Georgia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Phantom networks force Georgians to either delay needed health care or forgo it entirely,” he said.

Nunn pointed to inaccurate insurance provider listings of behavioral health care providers that can mislead consumers and make it hard to find providers who take insurance.

“We are simply seeking for insurers to provide the care they promised to Georgians and for which the insurers receive tens of billions of dollars in premium payments each year,” he said.

Along with systemic factors, stigma often stops Georgians from getting behavioral health care, said Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

“We’ve got to get away from [thinking] if a child is getting treatment for a mental health condition, it’s somehow bad,” Breedlove said.

Equity is another key element undergirding the new vision for mental health.

“One in ten Georgians is foreign born, and by committing to increase access to culturally and linguistically appropriate care, we open the door for thousands of Georgians to get the quality care they deserve,” said Crystal Muñoz, immigration policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

“Behavioral health care equity ensures that all Georgians have a fair and just opportunity to lead healthy lives regardless of background, socioeconomic status, and place of residency.”

Policymakers and advocates emphasized it is now up to state agencies and consumers to make sure that the last legislative session’s major mental health reforms are enforced.

Weston Burleson, communications director for the Georgia Department of Insurance, said Georgians can report suspected parity violations at the agency’s consumer complaint portal.

The insurance department also plans to hire a mental health parity officer, a position created under this year’s mental health law.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Leave a comment