If the opioid crisis taught New York state anything, it’s that drug addiction is a disease, not a crime or a personal choice.

With spikes in suicide rates, severe depression and substance abuse, lawmakers and health leaders are pushing to amend the state Constitution to include greater protections for mental health services to mimic safeguards in place for other health care. Obscured by the ravages of COVID, the proposal for mental health reform is long overdue.

Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, and state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, D-38, announced their bills last week to create parity between mental and physical health in the state constitution. The new language requires both mental and physical health “will be matters of public concern,” and would codify the responsibility in state law.

Mental health, much like our attitudes toward it, has not been updated in New York’s Constitution in 83 years, the days when shock treatment, lobotomies and strait-jackets were considered therapy.

The change is long overdue, officials said last week, but they stressed that mental health issues were italicized and exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. New York state is not alone. Countries around the globe reported climbing rates of anxiety and depression from prolonged isolation, resulting in increases in suicides, eating disorders and substance abuse over the last 14 months.

Little has improved since the last constitutional update in the late 1930s. Attitudes and treatments continue to erect a stigma around mental health. And that stigma has profound influence on how mental health is administered in New York.

The legislation proposed by Barrett and Reichlin-Melnick, if passed and signed into law, will have many benefits. After a year of isolation prolonged by pandemic-created lockdowns, a lot of thinking has turned inward toward the mind. The state has a golden opportunity to develop new approaches to mental health treatment before the empathy fades.

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