Gov. Kathy Hochul has made fighting the state’s mental health crisis a priority in this year’s budget, calling it "the defining challenge of our time."

She is proposing $4.8 billion to address serious mental illness as well as mental health issues among younger people. Advocates and lawmakers say they are encouraged but concerned about filling the positions necessary to fight the crisis, while taking care of and retaining the existing workforce.

“It sends strong messages to all of us that she really does care a lot about mental health and that is appreciated,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, of the governor’s budget.

The budget includes proposals that would increase the number of available psychiatric beds and improve mental health resources for those in the criminal justice system.

Perhaps most importantly, said Liebman, are the early intervention programs including school-based mental health clinics in any school that would like one.

“Funding for a program called teen first aid, which is something that is significant in terms of impacting young people’s lives in a significant way, we’re pleased to see school-based mental health clinics,” he said.

That said, he is concerned that the budget only includes a 1.5% cost of living adjustment, as compared to a 5.4% increase in 2023 and a 4% increase in 2024, which is less than half of what advocates had hoped for. The governor meanwhile made clear in her budget address that the infusions many services had seen over the past few years were a response to years of disinvestment and are unsustainable long term.

Liebman said, however, that in order to make the most of any improvements the state is looking to make, there has to be health care workers to implement them.

“People come into our field because they are mission driven, but mission driven doesn’t put food on the table, doesn’t pay student loans,” he said. “We need to have a comprehensive investment in mental health.”

State Sen. Samra Brouk chairs the Senate Mental Health Committee and said that before 2021, the state hadn’t provided a COLA increase in 10 years.

“I’ve been really proud that we’ve been able to bring subsequent increases every year because life continues to get more expensive and we have to honor this workforce,” she said.

She told Spectrum News 1 she is looking toward pushing for an even bigger bump if possible.

“I’m hoping we can increase that even further as we have done in previous years,” she said.

Ranking Member Republican state Sen. Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick said she agrees that supporting the workforce is a concern and is open to looking into an increase, but recognizes it may be a challenge as the state works to reign in spending.

“It could possibly be better, but in a budget where we’re suggesting that we balance out things, we may not be able to do everything we want,” she said.

She told Spectrum News 1 that she would be interested in exploring further action to amplify student loan forgiveness for some professionals working in the more challenging areas of the field.

“It might be a way of getting people into underserved areas, giving them a break, it’s a benefit to them tremendously, but it’s not necessarily causing us to increase our taxes to taxpayers," she said. 

It’s worth noting that the budget does include a program to increase awareness of existing student loan forgiveness option for those in the field.

Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick said she pushed for the implementation of mental health clinics across the board in schools via an amendment last year and will be watching closely as more information is learned about how that proposal will be implemented.

Brouk meanwhile is continuing to advocate for the passage of Daniel’s Law, which proposes the establishment of specialized mental health response units tasked with handling crises, replacing the role of armed police officers.