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HOLYOKE — State Sen. John Velis joined Holyoke Media for an end of year discussion to reflect on 2023 and the work to come in the new year.

The Democratic senator from Westfield said the big thing from 2023 he is proud of is the reinvestment and effort toward behavioral health and in the mental health space.

“One of the biggest challenges in this year is stigma. We have a lot of folks who are embarrassed, ashamed — and of course they should be neither of the above, but I think we’re doing a really good job pushing back on stigma and encouraging people to come forward and encouraging people to say the three most difficult words for any human being to say: I need help,” Velis said.

Velis added of the “millions and millions” of investments made toward mental health issues in the last year, much of them have been targeted at the workforce as a way to encourage people to not only come into the workforce, but also for those in the workforce to know they have a support system in place.

“You can talk all you want about beds — like mental health beds, behavioral beds. Before people can staff them, they’re not beds that are available. I’ve gotten to a point now where I have conversations with providers and they’ll say, ‘We expect to have this many beds, or we have this many beds online,’ and before they even finish their sentence, I say how many beds can you staff though? That’s the only number I’m interested here,” Velis said.

While Velis added this is why not only are the supports for those in need important, for supports and ways to not only increase staff numbers but retain them is vital in this fight.

Velis said that with year two of the current legislative session getting underway he fully expects continued work with his leadership on drafting a substance use disorder bill. He added that with the data the state is receiving on drug overdoses, there has been minimal change over the last few years. He also added that 93% of these instances involved fentanyl.

“We still find ourselves in this battle of a lifetime,” Velis said. “It’s a daily grind. A lot of good work was accomplished in 2023 in the behavioral health space, specifically in the workforce side, but to say that we can kind of sit down and rest on our laurels would be just a gross and inaccurate statement. There is so much work to do. People are hurting and people are dying, but certainly steps were made in the right direction.”

Another big win from 2023 was the state passing tax reform according to Velis. He added one of the biggest challenges the state still face is housing and overall affordability.

“One of the things that I frequently tell people is, like every policy that we make, you need to look at it through the lends of, does this make Massachusetts more, or less competitive,” Velis explained. “Because the reality is, especially post-COVID when remote work is here to stay, there’s a lot of states who are trying to build up industries that Massachusetts historically has excelled at, and still excel at.”

Velis continued, “For example, Tennessee, to choose one of the states a lot of people are going to. If they can offer certain incentives, tax incentives and their housing cost is significantly less — in the day and age of remote work, what’s to prevent someone from going to live down there and work in Massachusetts.”

Velis said access to mental health services goes into this argument as it is an incentive of the state and without staying competitive, people will live elsewhere.
When looking at 2024, Velis said it was important the state takes a “monumental — billion dollar-plus” step in the housing field. He added he would argue this is the biggest issue the state faces.

“This isn’t a problem unique to one social economic status. People are hurting right now,” Velis said.

Another challenge to be faced in 2024 is military service numbers, an issue Velis has already been vocal about over the last year.

“One of the biggest concerns I have in 2024 is a concern I had in 2023, the record low numbers of people signing up for the military. It’s the biggest problem people are not talking about,” Velis said. “The real concern I have is that if a young man or woman is contemplating joining the military and we’re not seen as a society that values that service, that’s going to weigh on that young man or woman whether or not they decide to go through with singing the dotted line.”

To view the whole conversation with Velis, visit the Holyoke Media YouTube page.

tlevakis@thereminder.com | + posts