Social work students explore mental health policy during 16th Annual James L. Stone Legislative Policy Forum

On November 10, students in Syracuse University’s School of Social Work in the Falk College explored the implications of policy changes for social workers and other health professionals as New York State moves forward with reforming its behavioral health system. The 16th Annual James L. Stone Legislative Policy Symposium, entitled “Serving Adults with Severe Mental Illnesses: Will New York State Get It Right?”, offered a day-long interaction connecting students with the first-hand expertise of faculty, agency leaders, government officials and human services practitioners on the future of community-based care for adults with severe mental illnesses.

The day-long event, held at the Onondaga County Courthouse in Syracuse, prompted student inquiry into topics such as the extent to which fiscal incentives and cost-saving agendas steer reform and whether reforms adequately represent the needs of adults with severe mental illnesses. Students interacted with panelists about what is being done to ensure the voices of those with mental illness and their families are heard, and how these policy reforms impact social workers and other providers.

This year’s program agenda was developed by social work professor, Eric R. Kingson, in collaboration with other faculty from the School of Social Work and, MSW graduate assistant and conference coordinator, Shannon Alvord. One of the collaborators, assistant professor of social work, Matthew Spitzmueller, is currently working on a research project exploring the impact of proposed changes in mental health administration and financing in New York State on providers, consumers, and families. Since individuals with severe mental illness place unique pressures on inpatient services and costs, policymakers singled out mental health services for key structural reforms.

“This discussion addresses a time-sensitive and relevant issue. Social workers are strongly represented in community-based agencies that provide services to individuals with severe mental illness. Their work includes housing for the homeless, poverty relief, care coordination, and mental health treatment,” says Spitzmueller. “Social workers are the ones who, in their day-to-day interactions, are responsible for implementing and delivering policy. To put it most simply, they are the face of public policy for the individuals they serve. The more we can educate our students about policy implementation and advocacy, the more effective they will be in their practice,” he adds.

Spitzmueller led the panel discussion, “From the Top Down: New York State Perspectives and Impacts,” which included panelists: John Allen, special assistant to the Commissioner; director, Office of Consumer Affairs, NYS Office of Mental Health; Briana Gilmore, director of public policy, New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Service; Robert C. Long, commissioner and director of community services, Onondaga County Department of Mental Health. New York State Assembly member Aileen Gunther offered commentary during the panel discussion and participated in the question and answer session with the other panelists.

The keynote address, “Community Mental Health Care Reform: What’s It All About?” was presented by Glenn Liebman, Chief Executive Director, Mental Health Association of New York State.

For more than a decade, School of Social Work alumnus James L. Stone, MSW ’64 has made it possible for social work students to participate in the annual legislative policy symposium. Stone, a nationally recognized leader in the field of mental health services, created an endowed fund to support this event into the future and was involved in the event. “Once again, Professor Kingson brought together an amazing cast of experts, law makers and constituents who bring clarity, understanding and passion to a significant issue that is relevant to social work practice and policy. We are indebted to Mr. Jim Stone for his generosity in endowing this event. Mr. Stone is a model for other alums of our program,” says Carrie Jefferson Smith, director, School of Social Work and associate professor of social work.

Additional panels during the day included:

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Direct Experience of Policy Impact
Moderator: Nancy Mudrick, professor, School of Social Work. Panelists: Karen Winters Schwartz, president, National Association of Mental Illness, Syracuse Chapter; Shelia LeGacy, director, Family Support and Education Center, Access CNY; Justin Scott, peer recovery coach, Hope Connections – Catholic Charities of Onondaga County.

Where We Are Now: Local Perspectives and Impacts from SU School of Social Work Alums
Moderator: Alejandro Garcia, professor, School of Social Work. Panelists: Carl Coyle, MSW, chief executive officer, Liberty Resources, Inc.; Scott Ebner, MSW, executive director, Onondaga Case Management Services; Gerald Myers, LMSW, Central Division Director for the CNY Chapter of the NASW; mental health clinician, Arise; Sandra Waldron, ABD, LMSW, CASAC, personalized recovery-oriented services director, CNY Services, Inc.

The event began with greetings from Diane Lyden Murphy, associate professor and dean of the Falk College and from Carrie Jefferson Smith, associate professor and director of the School of Social Work. The day concluded with a discussion moderated Shannon Alvord, focused on implications for social work practice.