Mental health funding a battle

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2016

By Sid Salter

Don’t take this statement the wrong way or interpret it as one that is short on sympathy for the mentally ill in Mississippi. That’s not at all the case.

But by any reasonable standard, the funding of public mental health treatment in Mississippi over the last 20 years or so has been, and there’s really no other word for it, rather schizophrenic.

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It been rather strange to watch the current iteration of complaints about mental health treatment funding in Mississippi unfold. While the last legislative session wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty in terms of public policy, the notion that the current Republican leadership created the current mental health treatment furor is a claim that defies both logic and history.

Back in 1999 — when Democrats ran the show in the Legislature and in the Governor’s Mansion — the Legislature issued $20 million in bonds to build seven mental health crisis centers.

The first center opened in Corinth in 2001 and for a time had all 16 beds available for use. But five other centers in the Delta and central Mississippi, opened since 2004, only had funding for eight of 16 beds available for patients.

After constructing the crisis mental health centers, the Legislature failed to appropriate operating funds for the facilities until a newspaper investigation of the closed facilities was published in the spring of 2004.

Lawmakers agreed after public protest in the 2004 regular session to fund the seven centers around the state with $12.5 million, enough to run them at half capacity. Five mental health crisis centers were funded for half operations in September 2004 — Cleveland, Newton, Grenada, Laurel and Batesville.

In 2006, the Legislature provided “full funding” for the crisis centers. For another $10 million, state taxpayers built the 48-bed Specialized Treatment Facility for juvenile court-committed mental patients in Gulfport.

At that time, Barbour battled the projects, saying he was concerned about the state’s per-capita mental health spending in comparison with the surrounding states. He said that Mississippi’s spending was above the national average — rare for Mississippi in virtually any economic index.

For the record, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute reported that in Fiscal Year 2009, per-capita spending on mental health agencies in Mississippi was $108.96 per capita. That compared with a national average of $122.90 per capita. Alabama spent $77.89 per capita on mental health, while Arkansas spent $42.77, Louisiana spent $71.80 and Tennessee spent $78.31.

By 2009, Barbour recommended closing six of the seven crisis mental health centers before the shine was off the tile floors of the new buildings. Budget problems, he argued.

Fast forward to 2012. Gov. Phil Bryant proposed additional mental health cuts while Mississippi lawmakers are contemplating even deeper cuts. That despite the fact that time and the lengthy recession had already taken a toll on mental health spending in Mississippi. Mississippi’s mental health funding declined 10.4 percent between Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2012.

That’s a significant cut. But at the same time, South Carolina cut mental health spending by 39.3 percent, Alabama by 36 percent, Alaska by 32.6 percent, Illinois by 31.7 percent, Nevada by 28.1 percent, and California by 21.2 percent.

The fact is that in Mississippi, when mental health funding falters, law enforcement officers become mental health first responders. That’s unfair to law enforcement and often dangerous for the patients. Often, it leads to renewing Mississippi’s long and shameful practice of jailing truly sick and suffering people for the “crime” of being mentally ill, which is beyond barbaric.

But the fact is that failures in mental health funding in Mississippi aren’t partisan failures. Democrats in the legislative minority today need only look back to the days in the not-so-distant past when they controlled mental health spending in Mississippi for more than a century to find easy evidence of their own questionable track record on that score.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at