For The Record

Mental health advocates descend on Georgia Capitol to rally for continued service improvements

By: - January 31, 2023 4:50 pm

State department of behavioral health Commissioner Kevin Tanner says he is pushing for better pay for health service workers and new incentives to encourage college students to go into the field. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

When last year’s behavioral health parity bill was signed into law, Janet Norris was sitting in a Bartow County jail cell.

A lot has changed for her since then. After struggling with addiction for 27 years, the Cartersville resident found recovery through mental health court. She says the program saved her life, reunited her family, and set her on a path to becoming a peer specialist and addiction counselor to help others. 

Janet Norris poses for a photo on mental health day at the state Capitol, held just a couple weeks shy of her one-year anniversary of being in recovery. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

And on Tuesday, Norris joined advocates at the state Capitol – just a couple weeks shy of her one-year anniversary of sobriety – to push for more reforms and resources for others facing their own behavioral health challenges.

“That’s why I’m here – to be a voice of courage for the other ones who can’t be and who aren’t where I am,” she said.

Norris was among the hundreds of mental health advocates pushing for measures that will grow the behavioral health workforce, increase access to services, and expand the state’s behavioral health care system.

Many of the advocates wore green shirts that honored the late House Speaker David Ralston, who made improving access to behavioral health treatment his top priority in what would end up being his last legislative session.

Last year’s bill was celebrated as a meaningful first step toward lifting Georgia from the bottom when it comes to access to mental health treatment.

Jeff Breedlove with the Georgia Council for Recovery holds up the t-shirt honoring the late Speaker David Ralston. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recovery

“The way we’re going to honor his legacy is much more than putting his name on the back of a T-shirt,” Jeff Breedlove with the Georgia Council for Recovery said Tuesday. “We’re going to pass another bill this year and another bill next year and a bill the year after that, and we’re going to make life better for peers.”

Follow-up measures are expected this session, although some of the proposals are still taking shape. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, and Rep. Todd Jones, a South Forsyth Republican, said Tuesday they were working on a bill.

“The work is not completed,” Ralston’s successor, House Speaker Jon Burns, said Tuesday. “We still have work to do.”

A big component of this year’s measure is expected to deal with the workforce shortage that has hamstrung efforts to increase access to treatment and services. It’s also a priority issue for Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Tanner, who also leads the influential reform-minded commission, said he is pushing for better pay for behavioral health workers and new incentives to encourage college students to go into the field.

Mental health advocates wore green shirts honoring the late House Speaker David Ralston, who was a big driving force behind last year’s behavioral health parity bill. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“The fact is there are not enough people in our state who are trained and ready to meet the needs of Georgians who have or need treatment for mental health,” he said Tuesday.

“We must retain and we must strengthen our workforce because it truly is a matter of life and death, because for every vacant position is an individual who cannot heal, who cannot access hope and who cannot recover. These realities are simply unacceptable.”

Tanner said he is also trying to get ahead of the increased strain on state services that is expected to come once the federal government promotes the new national 988 suicide prevention line.

“We must be ready to address the demand when it comes because there should be no waitlist for people in crisis,” Tanner said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.