The state Legislature is working up a budget, and one proposal on the table would cut more than $8 million from behavioral health services. Residents who’ve been deeply affected by drug use in their communities called on lawmakers Saturday, Jan. 30, not to cut the funding that combats it.
Organizers handed out multi-colored flags and white candles in the parking lot of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Fe. These demonstrators drove down from Española, where mental health and substance abuse issues have gripped the town for decades.
Mary Shoemaker wore a button on her shirt featuring a photo of her son, Victor Villalpando, who was shot and killed by police in 2014. "He had been 16 for nine days," she said. "He called 911 for help, and he was dead within seconds."
Villalpando was a burgeoning young dancer and gymnast, and his death hit Española hard. Today, his mom said, she would march for him, "and in hopes that people who are suffering from behavioral health issues will get the help that they need," she said. "And if our son had had some of the help he maybe needed, he would be alive today."
These demonstrators wanted to send this message to lawmakers: Don’t cut resources for mental health care and substance abuse treatment from the state budget this year.
Lauren Reichelt is the director of Health and Human Services in Rio Arriba County where behavioral health dollars go a long way. There the overdose death rate is often one of the highest in the United States. Budget cuts, she said, would "affect our county very heavily."
Reichelt said they were counting on a $500,000 grant—every year for five years—to tie all of their services together. Budget cuts could also ax funding for crisis response teams that were trained after the Villalpando's killing.
She called everyone together, and they began walking. They passed by the tall statue of the Virgin Mary, who prays outside the church.
The ripple effect of drug abuse creates other strains, too, Reichelt said. "Just the stress on the county’s budget, because it shifts so much of our budget into jails and law enforcement that we really can’t put it into schools and health care where it would do more good."
When the demonstrators got to the Roundhouse, they were asked to leave their signs and flags outside. They entered the rotunda to applause, like they were crossing a finish line. There were booths set up for the Legislature’s Behavioral Health Day.
Phillip Mirabal was shot when his motorcycle was stolen, and he said he’s coping with PTSD after the incident. "You don’t realize that you need it until you need it, you know what I mean? It’s something I never really paid much mind to."
He couldn’t find help in his hometown of Grants. "So I moved up here to Española—and I don’t have no family up here," he said. "And now it seems like, now the resources that they have available for me, they want to take it away."
Joshua Trujillo is a certified peer support worker for Inside Out Recovery, which serves Española and Taos. He said he knows firsthand what it’s like to quit a heavy heroin habit cold turkey. "I was in such severe withdrawal that I was hallucinating," he said. "I was having seizures. I went 11 days without being able to hold down food or water. I went 19 days without sleep."
He said there was nowhere to turn, and what the region really needs is even more financial support—especially for medical detox. "There’s only so much that we can do without the proper funding," he said. "I don’t know a single person that hasn’t been affected, whether it’s themself, family members, you know, friends. Everybody’s affected by this."
Outside, the marcher's chant "Recovery is possible!"
A message to both addicts and legislators.
For more information, check out this data about drug overdose deaths by county in New Mexico.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Con Alma Health Foundation. Find it online at publichealthnm.org.