Mental health centers need more funding

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The big Jackson daily had a good piece about mentally ill persons and their plight recently. It detailed how too many mentally ill patients cannot receive medical care and more often than not end up in prison instead of a medical facility.

The practical side of this issue lies in two major considerations: the medical needs of individuals and the fiscal problem created for counties and municipalities.

As to the medical needs of individuals, which too often takes a second to the fiscal problems, Sen. Billy Thames, D-Mize, illustrated it perfectly in talking to me.

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&8220;Say you and I are together and you have a heart attack, God forbid. I can load you up in the back of my pickup truck and haul you to Jackson to a hospital that has the best facilities and the best equipment and the best doctors,&8221; Thames said. &8220;But let’s say we’re together and you hear voices in your head telling you to go blow up the courthouse in Forest. Then when I take you to that Jackson hospital with all those great facilities and doctors, they are going to tell us they can’t help you.&8221;

Instead, that person &045; God forbid it ever be me &045; will end up in jail for a short stay until arrangements can be made for that person to be transferred to a mental health care facility such as Whitfield.

That is why Thames and other legislators passed the Mental Health Reform Act of 1997 and why in 1999 they passed legislation to set up seven mental health crisis centers across the state.

&8220;We designed this system so that no one no matter where they lived would have to drive more than an hour to get to one of these facilities,&8221; Thames said.

Today, most &045; if not all &045; are completed, such as the one over in Newton. The Central Mississippi Residential Center is ready for patients. It is a 16-bed unit staffed and ready to go, save one little thing: money. The Legislature failed to fund it last year because monies dried up. The same could be the case this year.

But that leads us to the second aspect of this issue. County and municipal law enforcement agencies must bear the burden of housing mentally ill persons who are awaiting treatment by a mental health hospital. The cost of holding such a person can grow tremendously if the person requires medication &045; which is almost always a given. If they have hurt themselves or hurt themselves while in custody, then the costs grow because the jail is responsible for that medical care as well.

And therein lies the Catch 22. If the state ups and foots the bill, they must cover the millions of dollars they have to spend in a time when money is as tight as it has ever been. On the flip side, if the state does not, then counties and municipalities must continue to struggle with swelling medical costs to house mentally ill persons. Not to mention, the state is still spending money for a bareboned staff at these facilities that in themselves cost a pretty penny and are not being utilized.

But let us not forget that the real issue here are people who have a medical condition beyond their control and are deserving of medical attention and not jail time. Thames became the state’s top legislative crusader for mental health, he said, after trying to help someone close to his family gain medical care for their mentally ill relative. The best they could finally get was a 30-day waiting period before help could be given. Can you imagine walking into an emergency room with chest pains and being told, &8220;Come back in 30 days&8221;?

The problem with the mental illness issue is that too many people do not understand exactly what mental illness is. Perhaps it is because one cannot truly understand mental illness without knowing someone who is mentally ill.

So know this: the mentally ill are nothing more than people with a disease no more uncommon than cancer. In many cases, mental illness cannot be cured and grows progressively worse with age. The best they can hope for is to be treated. But in Mississippi, they cannot even get that in a timely, humane fashion.

Sam R. Hall

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