Opinion: Mental health matters

By Tina Sablan

In the Marianas, like so many other communities around the nation, we are facing a serious mental health crisis. Think of the traumas and hardships that families and individuals have endured just in the last few years, from an ongoing pandemic and multiple typhoon disasters before that, to unemployment, homelessness, utility disconnections, illness, hunger, and violence. Think of the people we all know, very likely ourselves included, who have struggled with stress, anxiety, grief, and depression.
We have but a handful of licensed psychologists and other mental health providers in the Marianas who are able to provide desperately needed care. The demand for their services is tremendous, and they have heavy caseloads. Wait times for appointments can take many months.
Recognizing that our people deserve better and expanded access to mental health care services, our small and heroic community of mental health professionals sought the support of the legislature to enable the commonwealth to join the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact, or PSYPACT.
Joining PSYPACT would expand access to mental health services, including specialized care not available in the islands, by facilitating the practice of telepsychology across state lines, and allowing temporary licenses for in-person practice. To date, 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted PSYPACT legislation.
As Chair of the Health and Welfare Committee in the House of Representatives, I worked closely with the CNMI’s providers in introducing and reviewing HB 22-80, the PSYPACT bill. The Committee held public meetings on the bill and received comments. My Health and Welfare colleagues and I also testified at a meeting of the Healthcare Professions Licensing Board to explain the bill and answer questions. The PSYPACT bill received strong support from the Healthcare Professions Licensing Board, the leadership of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation and Community Guidance Center, licensed psychologists in private practice, mental health providers in the school system, and LGBTQ advocates and allies.
The bill received strong bipartisan support in the legislature too, passing both the House and the Senate unanimously. And then Governor Torres vetoed the bill – out of ignorance or spite or both perhaps, but clearly for no good reason at all.
If Ralph Torres cared about mental health in the Marianas, and had any questions about how PSYPACT works or what it would actually cost, all he had to do was ask. Or read the committee reports of the House and Senate. Or listen to the testimonies provided during legislative hearings. Or call or email the PSYPACT Commission or any of the CNMI’s licensed providers. He didn’t do any of that. In vetoing the bill, Governor Torres turned his back on the mental health needs of our community.
Ralph Torres may not understand or appreciate how important mental health is for the overall wellbeing of our community; I do. My colleagues in the House and Senate do. Mental health providers and their patients do. Our families and children do. Mental health matters, to all of us. I remain fully committed to enacting PSYPACT legislation and improving and expanding the mental health care services available to our people – as the Health and Welfare Chair in the House, and as the commonwealth’s next governor.
Tina Sablan is the Chair, House Standing Committee on Health and Welfare and the 2022 Democratic Candidate for Governor of the CNMI

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