Photo by Dan F
This article was originally published in AccessLetter by the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities
On March 4, 2015, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker proposed the upcoming fiscal year budget, cutting Department of Mental Health (DMH) funding for Recovery Learning Communities (RLCs) by 50%. Immediately emails started flying all over the state, among people with mental health challenges served by RLCs, and allies. Rallies were planned, press releases and petitions were drafted, and pleas were posted urging everyone to contact their legislators. The response, from RLC members, allies, and legislators, was resounding, but as of this writing, the funding is still not secure.
At RLCs, people participate in groups and trainings that cover everything from coping with hearing voices to yoga to job-hunting skills. They are peer-run, meaning that their staff members also have struggled or are struggling with mental health challenges. Because of this, “RLCs are able to reach many individuals who…might otherwise not seek help at all,” states the RLC press release. RLCs “are unique because there is no referral, intake, or waitlist process,” writes Janel Tan, Program Director of the Cambridge-Somerville RLC. “People with psychiatric conditions can have easy access to mental health services when they need it—all for free!” Over 8,000 people were reached by the RLCs in fiscal year 2014.
If the budget is signed as proposed, “These cuts would be disastrous,” says Paul Styczko, a peer in recovery and the Director of the Metro Boston RLC. “As it stands now, we have demand for services at tons of places where we haven’t been able to meet the need.”
Six RLCs in Massachusetts operate out of over twenty centers. The Cambridge-Somerville RLC, or CSRLC, serves the Cambridge area. “I [had] never fully been able to accomplish much in the way of Mental Health progress,” writes one member, Robert W Steinberg. “Your best bet was to become a Med Zombie on a locked ward or go to a long term facility and that to me was not a solution. It was a prison sentence. I have made more progress in the last year from attending classes and groups at the CSRLC than I have with thirty plus years of seeking help [elsewhere].” Another member says, “I don’t know what I would be doing right now without this resource.”
“In addition,” states the press release, “RLCs have saved taxpayers dollars through peer support phone lines and peer bridge supports by reducing 911 calls, emergency room visits and psychiatric hospital stays.”
On April 1, 150 people turned out for a rally in front of the State House. Supporters came from as far away as Western Massachusetts. Ruthie Poole, Director of Advocacy of the Transformation Center, says, “There was a hopefulness, an energy: Me being here really matters. Straight, gay, transgender, African Americans, White people, Latinos who spoke in Spanish—they talked about how being at the RLC literally saved their lives.”
Other organizations, allies of the RLCs, also took up the cause. The Massachusetts chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Mass) added to its previously-scheduled April 13 Advocacy Day the plea, “Restore the $1.7 Million to 5046-0000 to fully fund the Recovery Learning Communities.” Laurie Martinelli, Executive Director of NAMI Mass, says, “We can see the benefits of having the RLCs. It was a dumb idea to cut them—I hope they’re figuring that out.”
Also on April 13, the Massachusetts Ways and Means Committee heard constituents’ input on the proposed budget. Eight panelists spoke on behalf of the RLCs. Here too the wider community supported the RLCs’ cause. Colin Killick, community organizer of the Disability Policy Consortium, wore one of the “SAVE THE RLCS” stickers being distributed. “We as an organization are supportive of RLCs and the important work they do,” he says.
On April 15, the Ways and Means Committee announced that House Leadership and Rep. Brian Dempsey, Ways and Means Chair, restored to the RLCs their full funding. As this article goes to press, exultant emails are flying among RLC supporters. “GO OUT AND CELEBRATE! Sorry for shouting but I just can’t help myself!” writes Justin Brown, Director of the Northeast RLC.
However, the process is not over; the Senate still has not made its position clear. Gov. Baker will sign the completed budget into law on July 1, 2015. Until then, Ruthie Poole says, “We have to keep the pressure on. We’ll need every supporter.” Janel Tan adds that every call, letter, or email will help. The people of Massachusetts are making their voices heard on this topic.
Ann Burgess, former worker at Northeast RLC, says, “We are people with lived experiences of diagnoses and trauma, and we are out there to promote hope.”
For links to the websites of RLCs in Massachusetts, go to http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/consumer/behavioral-health/mental-health/recovery-learning-communities.html.
UPDATE: July 2015: Gov. Baker signed a budget that restored full funding to the RLCs.