Mental health issues centerpiece of federal and state legislative discussion

Addictions and mental health issues often strike people at a young age, said a speaker at a recent legislative breakfast on mental health, suicide and addiction issues.

“Ninety percent of all substance abuse addictions begin in the teen years. Half of the mental health problems begin by the age of 14,” Ingrid Gillespie told her audience at a mid-December legislative breakfast held for local, state and federal legislators, including several from Greenwich.

Ms. Gillespie is the director of the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council. The council sponsored the breakfast that was held Dec. 16 at UConn Stamford.

The council is an initiative of the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It covers Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan and is one of 13 in the state. It was the first time the council held a legislative breakfast, and the council gathered an impressive collection of local politicians, ranging from state representatives to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., both of whom are town residents, for the event.

Newly sworn in Stamford Mayor David Martin also attended, as did other state senators and representatives from Stamford, Darien and New Canaan.

Ms. Gillespie said workers in the fields of mental health and addiction realize the importance of policies that can either help or hinder their efforts, and that’s why they wanted to bring together local politicians to the breakfast.

“What we hope to accomplish is to raise awareness with the legislative reps on the behavioral health concerns in our region,” she said in comments before the meeting. “And secondly, we hope that by the time they walk out the door that there will be an increased interest and support in some of the proposed legislation that we are asking [for].”

Among the legislative initiatives the council is backing is to ensure that e-cigarettes are not sold to minors.

Mr. Blumenthal spoke about e-cigarettes and the concerns he has about them.

“The argument for e-cigarettes is that they help people reduce their smoking, but the health advocates whom I respect say that e-cigarettes often attract young people and in fact they are marketed often to young people,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “They are designed to attract young people to begin smoking even though it is not  tobacco, but that leads to smoking. In other words, it is a gateway to tobacco addiction. It is certainly a gateway to nicotine addiction.”

He said he is pushing the Food and Drug Administration to restrict marketing e-cigarettes to young people. Mr. Blumenthal also expressed concern about energy drinks, especially when they are used by children. While they may not pose a danger to adults, he said, the effect is much harsher on young people.

“They are certainly not safe for kids. The numbers of emergency room visits connected with energy drinks is up between 2007 and 2011,” he said.

He listed a number of popular energy drinks, noting that their logos are plastered everywhere, including on items like toys that are marketed to younger children.

There were discussions as well about the impact steps might have on businesses. As part of that conversation, Greenwich state Rep. Stephen Walko (R-150th) rejected increasing the application fee from $50 to $100 for retailers who sell tobacco.

“I would not be necessarily in favor of increasing an application fee simply for increasing an application fee,” he said. “You are going to tax the mom and pop stores that we all use. In essence you are taxing areas that are not violating the law.”

However, he said he did favor more education for retailers on avoiding selling tobacco products to young people, and said that smokeless tobacco needs to be addressed as well. That was a topic that fellow Greenwich state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st) also touched on. Mr. Camillo, a longtime umpire in town who has been involved with several youth sports leagues, warned that smokeless tobacco is still attractive to many young athletes.

“Anybody who plays sports or is around sports knows that that’s a major problem. I see more and more kids, surprisingly, doing it,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of guys I played with are still doing it from the times they played 20-30 years ago. We are seeing more and more cancer issues from that, unfortunately.”

Mr. Himes devoted his time to national issues and how they affect funding for addiction and other concerns. While there has been criticism of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Mr. Himes praised the law for helping on mental health parity. He said insurance plans in place before the ACA often had what he called “robust” provisions for hospitalization, pharmaceuticals and catastrophic care “but were very light on the identification, diagnosis, therapy, and treatment of mental health issues.”

Mr. Himes warned that discretionary spending by the federal government on programs for addiction programs, for example, may be imperiled by the demographic pressure that is seeing spending on Medicare and Social Security increase due to the aging population. He said there has to be a consensus on controlling spending on the programs in order to help preserve that discretionary spending.

“We all have to acknowledge that the math exists not because anybody is stupid or any party made a bad mistake but because this population is aging,” Mr. Himes said. “If we don’t … in a fair and equitable way reform those programs, eventually they will come to crowd out that discretionary spending that I was talking about.”

Gambling was also discussed at the breakfast, and the participants focused on the possible expansion of off-track betting in the state. Mr. Camillo said he favored dedicating some of the revenue from any expansion of off-track betting to addiction services and counseling. He said for most people, like himself years ago, laying down an occasional bet is a harmless activity but added he has seen the damage it can wreak.

“Like  most people growing up, I knew a bookie, and I would call a bookie on a Sunday and say, ‘Take the Steelers,’” he told the audience. “But I have seen what it has done to people and how addictive it could be.”

The wide-ranging discussion touched on many different subjects, and the legislators also spoke about medical marijuana and decriminalizing the use of small amounts of marijuana. Mr. Himes said the mood among congressional legislators on both sides of the aisle is to let the states handle the issues of medical marijuana and decriminalizing marijuana.

He said there was an unusual meeting of the minds among congressional members on the issue, where very conservative states’ rights advocates agree with often very liberal members that the issues should be handled at the state level.

Mr. Himes noted that Washington state and Colorado have legalized the use of small amounts of marijuana.

Council member and Old Greenwich resident Stephanie Paulmeno, a registered nurse as well as a former health administrator for both The Nathaniel Witherell and the town, was a key part of organizing the event and said it is important for legislators to get to interact with local experts in the addiction, prevention and mental health fields.

“We wanted the legislators to get to know who we are because we can serve as tremendous experts and people who can help them when they have to discuss the hard issues and look at where they are going to fall in on a particular issue,” Ms. Paulmeno said.

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