POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Rare agreement found on mental health funding

By James Hull and Ed Holliday

Just under two weeks ago, about 400 North Mississippians gathered at Itawamba Community College-Tupelo, to voice opposition to any shutting down, or cutting of funds for the state’s mental hospitals. I say “any” because, even though their primary concern is the Tupelo facility, all or most were there in support of mental health care in general.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson made perhaps the most compelling case, expressing consternation at having to put mentally ill people in jail because there is no room in a proper facility. But Sheriff Johnson’s points were by no means the most personal or poignant. Former mental health patients gave their own testimonies of receiving state help during a personal crisis. One mother spoke of how her son was helped with state-funded medicine, then the help was discontinued. His situation is more dire now than ever before.
What all of these people had in common was the concern that our state government is about to turn its back on a serious health issue. They were not there as Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, rich or poor. There were there as people who care for people. They brought with them the message that this issue is so important they are willing to put their political differences aside and speak as one.
I wonder, though, if those in attendance really understood that the broader significance of their gathering was that if we can find common ground around the issue of mental health, then why not the public health issues of smoking and obesity and Medicaid funding?
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed said it best in a recent column, claiming we have more in common than we do differences. Unfortunately, we allow politicians to stake out our common ground for us, which usually leaves us divided on many issues which we should be united.
I believe that compromise works and dogmatism divides.
I believe bi-partisanship is the solution to public policy problems, diversity is the solution to issues of hate and ignorance, and multi-cultural representation is the solution to the issues of race. That’s what we had at the recent mental health forum. It’s what we need more of.

James makes some great points. We do still live in a great country because we can come together as citizens and voice our concerns. Americans can and do work together for what we must do. The support for keeping the mental health centers across the state open is truly Mississippians cooperating. Most citizens have no idea how closely knit the mental health facilities function.
Now, there are less than 3,300 beds in mental health facilities across the state and some of these have occupants of possibly 50-60 years for the most severe cases. The community mental health crisis centers have about 101,000 visits in a year. With many of these beds shut down and many of the community crisis centers reduced or shuttered, where are these citizens going to go? When beds are not available for patients who need lock down to prevent injury to themselves or others, where will they go? The answer as Sheriff Johnson emphatically pointed out is a jail absent of needed professional mental healthcare.
If any parts of the knitted mental healthcare facilities are shut down, there will be waiting lists to get into the two long-term state-run hospitals in Meridian and Whitfield. Waiting lists sometimes mean that citizens will have to watch their loved ones suffering from mental illness be committed to jail. That commitment means being handcuffed, placed into a jumpsuit, and publicly humiliated in a courtroom.
Today local centers can send a patient during a temporary mental crisis to a lock down unit in the state hospital in Tupelo. After treatment many of these patients can return to their communities as they are helped by the local crisis centers. This system now actually saves taxpayers money.
We may have to place ads on state-owned overpasses. We may have to use the governor’s official website to sell ads – with speculation about his future his webpages should be premium cyber-space for internet ads. But I would rather see ads on state property than see my fellow citizens with mental illnesses handcuffed and placed in jumpsuits to go before a judge because society has no other place for them.
That reminds me of another person we celebrate this time of year, born 2,000 years ago in an animal trough because society had no room in an inn for his expectant mother and his earthly dad. Our Legislature must dig deep and be creative to find the money to keep our mental health facilities open.

Dr. Ed Holliday is a Tupelo dentist who has written two successful books. Contact him at ed@teaparty.ms. James Hull is an award-winning consultant and journalist. Contact him at hullmulktimedia@aol.com.

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