United States treasury check on top of a hundred dollar bill, on top of a blue surgical mask

ATLANTA – Despite pandemic budget cuts, Georgia’s behavioral health agency is working with record funding levels as a result of pandemic aid from the federal government.

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is slated to receive $91 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan that became law in early March. The funding will supplement the department’s $1.3 billion budget, and follows a separate influx of about $80 million from last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“It’s such an unprecedented event,” said Monica Johnson, director of the behavioral health division at the department. “This has not been something that’s ever happened, this amount of funding to come our way.”

The funding comes over a year after the onset of a pandemic that experts say sparked an increase in mental health problems and exacerbated the opioid crisis across the country. Opioid-involved overdoses now account for over 35% of emergency department visits in Georgia, up from 27% before the pandemic began last year, according to the department’s latest data.

“All of us were stressed, all of us looked for ways to cope,” Johnson said. “Some of us looked for ways that are healthy, and some of us looked for ways that are not as healthy. It’s not a judgement, it’s just the way humans operate.”

Johnson said the funding will support the department’s network of behavioral health providers who treat those facing mental health and addictive disorders. The funds will also go toward crisis response initiatives like the Georgia Emotional Support phone hotline, which debuted last year, as well as peer-led addiction recovery programs across the state. 

Beyond the immediate needs, Johnson said the department can invest in longer-term projects like the Georgia Apex Program, which aims to strengthen mental health services in schools.

The funding is split into two categories, with $46 million allocated for addictive disease services and $45 million for mental health services. The department is currently finalizing spending plans due in early July that will require federal approval. 

That process could take months, as the government didn’t approve plans for the $80 million from last year’s relief package until earlier this month. Once it’s approved, the department will have until 2025 to utilize the funds.

Jeff Breedlove of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse said the support from the federal government is an essential first step, but emphasized the importance of supporting the recovery community long after the temporary funding is used up.

“As grateful as we are for emergency funding, that’s not the long-term solution,” Breedlove said. “The long-term solution is embedding funding in our permanent budgets at the local, state and federal level.”

He said department Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald and Governor Brian Kemp have been strong supporters of behavioral health initiatives, but as the state emerges from the pandemic, it will be critical to enhance federal support with much more state funding. Without it, he said, Georgia will be unprepared to handle the wave of new mental health and substance use disorder patients resulting from the pandemic, and face a steep human and economic toll.

“This is a national crisis. This is an epidemic. COVID exacerbated it, but it will outlast COVID,” Breedlove said. “And when America comes to terms with that, we’re going to start saving lives, restoring families and making communities safer.”

For crises related to mental health, substance use or intellectual and developmental disabilities, help is available 24/7 via the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. 

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