State doing little to assist mentally ill

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

A group from Scott County and surrounding areas in Middle Mississippi made a trip to Jackson last week to lobby lawmakers in an effort to obtain funding for several mental health care facilities that were built around the state.

The facilities &045; a total of seven &045; are mostly, if not fully, completed. They are working mental health facilities with all the amenities and such a patient would need save one small detail: a staff.

&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; Sen. Billy Thames, D-Mize, said in an interview last year.

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Thames is a major proponent of the Mental Health Reform Act that was passed in 1997. He helped lead the charge in 1999 to build the mental health facilities. Now, some five years later, the state is the proud owner of seven state-of-the-art facilities that do hardly anything &045; if anything at all.

County leaders from across the state are now getting involved because they are the ones feeling the financial burden of our state’s poor mental health care system. It is not because counties are keeping the seven facilities afloat – no one is. These facilities are essentially just sitting there.

Nonetheless, counties are faced with the high cost of treating and housing mentally ill persons. One might think said costs come from hospitals, but one would be wrong.

In Mississippi, if a mentally ill person has no family or no means for health care, they are generally incarcerated. The county or municipality must then pay for the cost of housing mentally ill inmates and for medication they might require.

Past this, jails also face liability issues. If a mentally ill inmate hurts himself or someone else, then the jail must pay for the damages and the medical costs. Such liability issues affect the cost of insurance at a jail, which we all know is skyrocketing practically everywhere in the state.

In short, the state has spent a lot of money to build wonderful mental health facilities but have not funded them for staffing. In effect, counties and municipalities must continue to pick up the tab for housing and treating mentally ill persons in many instances. All in all, we have a fiscal conundrum.

Too bad no one really expects the Legislature to step up and relieve the burden from local governments during this session. Lawmakers have done nothing but hint toward increasing the burden on local governments by paying less to counties to house state inmates and cutting public education, thus forcing local school districts to pass a tax increase to make up the shortfall.

So, let us take into consideration the people who should be most considered during this debate: the mentally ill.

After writing a piece on this same subject last year, a 49-year-old woman from Natchez wrote me. She suffers from mental illness, as does her 44-year-old husband who has bouts of depression and mood swings; their oldest son of 33 who is on eight different medications to help battle bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and post tramatic syndrome; their youngest son, 16, who suffers from depression; their 17-year-old daughter who suffers from adjustment syndrome, depression and anxiety attacks; and the Natchez woman’s mother-in-law, 83, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Everyone in this family has been hospitalized for their mental illness except the mother. Now, she has no insurance and cannot afford the treatment or medication she needs.

But do not think all mentally ill patients are in the same boat &045; though an overwhelming majority are. Some are the father-in-laws of newspaper editors who have enough money for treatment and personal care homes, but as treatment and personal care homes go in the state, Mississippi has little to offer.

Instead, we still lock our crazies up, because that is the mentality we have. Too many people think of the mentally ill as crazy and incapable of living a normal life. Too many people &045; unfortunately many of our legislators &045; are simply misinformed.

Sam R. Hall

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