FILE - Georgia state Capitol

The gold dome of the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta.

(The Center Square) – A group of mental health advocates is calling on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers to address behavioral health and substance abuse disorders by spending federal relief money and enacting policy changes.

The coalition of mental health and substance recovery organizations urged lawmakers to use the state's American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and policy to support Georgians with disorders.

Georgia Council on Substance Abuse Communications and Policy Chief Jeff Breedlove said Monday federal funding is one of the many tools the governor and the Legislature should consider "to continue their bipartisan support for mental health and substance abuse disorder."

Georgia received more than $17 billion in federal aid from the ARPA, according to the Governor's Office of Planning and Budgeting. About $840 million was earmarked for public health. Another $4.8 billion was awarded with the flexibility to respond to the adverse effects of the pandemic.

Representatives for House Speaker David Ralston's office said the House has focused on improving access to "quality mental health services" over the past few years.

Budget writers increased spending on behavioral health in fiscal year 2022 by $58 million over fiscal year 2021.

"This is a multiyear process and one that remains at the forefront of the House’s agenda," said Kaleb McMichen, director of communications for Office of Speaker David Ralston.

The Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership and Substance Use Disorder Community wants the state to go further. Its top priority is ensuring parity in care, access and coverage.

"It is important to ensure that commercial health insurance companies are providing the same level of benefits and mental health coverage, and behavioral health coverage that they need for physical health coverage," said Abdul Henderson, executive director of Mental Health America of Georgia.

The coalition is also calling on lawmakers to address social obstacles that limit health care access, such as housing, transportation, discrimination and employment. Advocates want the state to employ and train more peer support specialists, create a statewide trauma database and a health care scorecard and invest in more suicide and crisis prevention measures.

National Alliance on Mental Illness Georgia Executive Director Kim Jones said Georgia should adopt a co-responder model when engaging with people with behavioral health disorders. The practice calls for integrating law enforcement services with behavioral health care.

House Health & Human Services Committee Chair Rep. Sharon Cooper said she is backing a bill to regulate how law enforcement officers engage with people with behavioral and substance abuse disorders.

Cooper, R-Marietta, said Monday the bill would ensure people get the care they need to prevent recidivism.

"When they do get help, and they get back on their feet, they are now dealing with a criminal charge," she said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.