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Why Mississippi should make mental health a priority

BY T.J. RAY

Once upon a time, late on a spring afternoon, I took someone very special to me to the emergency room at the hospital. A gentle nurse got her in bed, and a doctor came through the curtain to discuss her condition.

He recognized quickly that his training had not taught him how to deal with such a patient. His skills were limited to blood, and bone, and organs—her problem was mental.

At some point the doctor began calling around to other towns asking if they had a room she could be sent to. No one did—even places where she had once been a patient.

As the early evening passed, I’d alternate between sitting helpless in her little cubicle as she slept and pacing the hall, stopping often to see if the doctor was having any luck. He wasn’t. As the clock wound past eleven o’clock, I asked him what would happen if he couldn’t find a room, and he answered that I’d just have to take her out. A few minutes before midnight, his third call to the Med Center in Jackson got good results, and fifteen minutes later she was loaded into an ambulance for the ride south.

The hospital had once kept a special room for psychiatric patients, but some legal troubles had caused that to be done away with. Thus the only choices left to a family with a sick loved one was to stay at home or get the Chancery Clerk to fill out the forms to have the person locked in the jail.

Many families at one time or another go through an experience like the one above. And way too many times no remedy or support is available to help them get through it. A mental illness is a health condition that causes changes in a person’s thinking, mood or behavior. It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is vulnerable to disease. Mental illness is a health condition just like diabetes or asthma is a health condition. Mental illnesses are more common than cancer and heart disease combined. One in five people will experience a mental illness during his lifetime, and one family in four has a member who is mentally ill and who will require some type of treatment.

In August of this year, the Justice Department filed a complaint against the state of Mississippi, alleging that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) by failing to provide adults with mental illness with necessary integrated, community-based mental health services.

The community integration mandate of the ADA and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. require states to make services available to people with disabilities – including people with mental illness – in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

In the face of such statistics, consider the words of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, which says “The DMH is committed to developing and maintaining a comprehensive, statewide system of prevention, service, and support options for adults and children with mental illness or emotional disturbance, alcohol/drug problems, and/or intellectual or developmental disabilities, as well as adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia.”

And that would offer much needed hope for families living in this horrible world, except for the fly in the ointment. Its name is the Mississippi Legislature.

Consider some news bits out of Jackson: “Overnight chemical-dependency services for men in Mississippi state hospitals will end as a result of budget cuts in fiscal-year 2017.”

“Ellisville State School, which serves people of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has to stop its early intervention services for children who are 3 years old and under.”

“The 29-bed Acute Medical Psychiatric Service unit at the state Hospital at Whitfield is closing and five beds for psychiatric patients at South Mississippi State Hospital will no longer be used.”

“The decision comes after lawmakers slashed $8.3 million from the department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Closure of the 29-bed Acute Medical Psychiatric Service.”

Please recognize that the snippets I have taken from public documents may all be totally wrong, may be fiction fabricated by bleeding hearts trying to find another axe to grind with a legislature that has sold its soul and much of the State’s birthright. As for me, I believe them and am saddened when the highest body in the State turns on its own vulnerable folks.

Watching ambulances drive away is painful.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.