Sid Salter, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
The Connecticut school shooting tragedy focused the nation’s attention first on U.S. gun rights policies, but the focus rightly shifted to the problems of mental health and the public’s willingness to see mental health treatment funding suffer as a result of a stagnant economy, changing priorities or simple benign neglect.
One of the causes I’ve tried to champion has been that of working to get the mentally ill out of Mississippi’s jails and into treatment. The funding battle of Mississippi’s crisis mental health centers was one of the most contentious fights I recall in the Legislature.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour was an impediment in that fight. At the time, Barbour said 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 — something that’s 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.
In his executive budget, current Gov. Phil Bryant is proposing additional mental health cuts while Mississippi lawmakers are contemplating even deeper cuts. That despite the fact that time and the lengthy recession has 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.
In the wake of the Connecticut shooting, there is renewed attention on the role cuts in state mental health spending may play in failing to recognize and treat those with mental illnesses who may gravitate toward mass shootings or other extreme manifestations of their mental problems.
The fact is that despite its shortcomings, Mississippi’s mental health system is funded better than such systems are funded in the contiguous Southern states. The fact that Mississippi has been the site of one of the first heinous school shooting incidents may have something to do with the fact that state lawmakers have generally held the line on making devastating cuts to mental health funding.
That’s not to say Mississippi’s mental health system is well-funded. It’s not. But lawmakers here have put a higher priority on funding mental health than have their counterparts across the state lines. As the nation looks for solutions in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, that fact is a bright line in Mississippi.
The question now remains whether Mississippi’s mental health system is efficient and effective enough to be a reliable factor in the school safety debate. The broader question is whether Mississippi can maintain a long-term commitment to community mental health funding.
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 – a practice that is beyond barbaric.