Panel studies ways to help mentally ill

JACKSON – Mississippi has more in-patient beds for the mentally ill per capita than any state in the nation, according to a national group.
But a legislative panel that is considering possible reforms in Mississippi’s mental health system discussed Monday whether the state spends too much on institutional care for the mentally ill.
Ed LeGrand, director of the state Department of Mental Health, said Mississippians might overuse the commitment process in which people – primarily family members – file papers in chancery court to attempt to have someone found mentally ill and placed in a state institution.
“We’re dependent commitment,” said LeGrand, who is a member of the study panel. “With our history, that is the quickest way we can get help for people in need.”
But the National Alliance on Mental Health, which gave Mississippi an F earlier this year in its report on the nation’s mental health system, says the mentally ill can get help in other ways.
“Mississippi’s primary challenge is the continuing lack of appropriate community-based services and support,” the report said. “There is too much reliance on a system of care that is not responsive to consumer and family needs.
“Services are not available until people reach a point of severe crisis.”
LeGrand has been trying to move the system toward more community services, including teams to provide support on the local level before that “severe crisis is reached.”
That is also part of the goal of the study committee, which will make recommendations to the 2010 Legislature.
The committee is looking at how the 15 community mental health centers across the state should be used to improve “the continuum of care” in the state system.
The 15 regional health systems, which depend largely on local tax revenue, are not governed by the state Department of Mental Health, and their services vary from region to region.
Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the disparity in funding and services among the centers must be resolved.
House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersille, who with Bryan is co-chairing the study panel, agreed.
“We need to identify areas where we have to have a certain level of services at all 15 centers,” Holland said. “Beyond that, if some of the centers want to have a Cadillac system that is their business. But I don’t think any centers can offer Cadillac services with the funding issues we have.”
Lee County Chancery Clerk Bill Benson, who also is on the study panel, said many of the people committed in Lee County are held in the county jail before being placed in a mental health hospital.
A few locations don’t have to use the county jail for the commitment process, but that is the exception rather than the norm.
The National Alliance on Mental Health study said the jails are having to be used because of the lack of community services.
“There is little mystery as to why Mississippi’s psychiatric hospitals are filled to capacity and why jails and prisons contain a disproportionate number of inmates with mental illness,” the report said.
Angela Kimball, director of state policy for the national group, said the problem is not necessarily a lack of funding. Instead, she said, the state spends more than the national average on the institutional care, but less than the national average on community services.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal