Federal government still fails to acknowledge the mentally ill (EDITORIAL)

Illustration by Erin Bushnell
Illustration by Erin Bushnell
Illustration by Erin Bushnell
Illustration by Erin Bushnell

The saying “Out of sight, out of mind” never rang truer than with the federal government’s attitude toward the mentally ill. Federal spending on inpatient care facilities have been increasingly cut since 1980, leaving millions of Americans in nursing homes, homeless or in prison. Yet as always, national attention to this issue isn’t discussed until people end up dead from a violent incident. It is ridiculous that a minority of people are being displaced and forgotten and someone needs to be held accountable.

In Oct. 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act proposing continued federal community health centers paired with state involvement. However, though Carter’s Commission on Mental Health issued more CMHCs—Community Mental Health Centers—and more federal spending, these centers put more pressure on communities to provide treatment rather than in state psychiatric institutions. In Nov. 1980, President Ronald Reagan was voted into office where he quickly gained a reputation when he discarded the Act and CMHCs funds became block grants to the states causing a great deals of problems for the mentally ill.

According to an article by Salon, in the 1960s and 70s, a majority of mentally ill patients were discharged from state institutions leaving them without proper care. According to Jeneen Interlandi, in a New York Times Magazine story, “By treating the rest in the least-restrictive settings possible, the thinking went, we would protect the civil liberties of the mentally ill and hasten their recoveries.” Apparently releasing mentally sick patients into communities without proper supervision or medication is safer for everyone.

Subsequently, when polled by National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, a number of respondents who listed themselves as the primary payer said they could not afford their medications as they ranged from $100 to $5,000. Seventy one percent of respondents to a study in the journal of Psychiatric Services did not seek medical attention because they thought they could solve the problem themselves.

During the 1980s, approximately 40,000 beds in state mental hospitals were shut down leaving an estimated 300,000 patients homeless. Nursing home abuse had become public after 1974 when Congress passed a legislation in 1987 requiring all Medicaid-funded nursing homes to screen new admissions to keep out patients who did not qualify for admission because they did not require skilled nursing care.

Obviously there is a disconnect between administrators and the reality of societal needs. How is any member of Congress qualified to tell these patients they do not require skilled nursing care? Just because the issue doesn’t affect you personally does not mean it isn’t a relevant issue. You can not just stop funding and supporting institutions where people are trying to get help because you’d like to fund a war or law enforcement.

These centers were a safe place for patients to acknowledge their illness and attempt to treat it. The government is famous for making haste decisions on issues that do not directly affect them. If they can take money away from the improvement of the world and fund their own agendas, they will not hesitate.

Now fast-forward to December 2007 when the U.S. was struck by the recession and $1.8 billion was cut from non-Medicaid state mental health funding. With budget cuts this large, according to the National Alliance for Mental Health, “Rather than saving states and communities’ money, these cuts to services simply shift financial responsibility to emergency rooms, community hospitals, law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities and homeless shelters.”

Now that the responsibility lies in the hands of law enforcement, prison or homeless shelters who is to be held accountable? How can these patients get the proper care they need if there are still no care facilities and health care costs are sky-high? The government is putting these patients at risk to harm themselves and potentially others.

Aside from being placed in nursing homes or becoming homeless, a large percentage of the mentally ill also end up in prison. A report by the Treatment Advocacy Center showed that an estimated 356,268 inmates had some kind of mental illness in 2012. That is about the population of New Jersey and 10 times more the amount of people who are being treated at in state psychiatric institutions.

After the movement to deinstitutionalize mental health care, community health centers housed 558,922 patients in 1955, today they have dropped to about 35,000. Another report by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2014 showed that in 44 states, at least one prison holds more individuals with mental illness than the states largest psychiatric hospital.

These are outrageous proportions that must be fixed immediately. The government needs a serious reality check and realize this is no way to deal with your citizens. Instead of allowing minorities to fend for themselves with limited resources and supportive assistance, the government needs to get intensely involved with these growing proportions.

There is a nationwide misconception that gun violence is related to mental health; the reality is that the mentally ill are actually more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators. According to NAMI, the risks of violence among this small subset of individuals may increase when appropriate treatment and supports are not available. The use of alcohol or drugs as a form of self medication can also increase these risks.

When instances of violence do occur, we get a clear understanding of the consequences of an uninvolved and unsupportive government.

Twenty-four hours before the 2013 stabbing, Senator Creigh Deeds’ son was under evaluation by mental health professionals while under emergency custody order. Deeds declares “the system failed my son” when officals had to release his son Gus because there were no psychiatric beds available and an individual may only be held under custody for six hours. Following this, Deeds’ son attacked him, stabbing him multiple times. Had the Senators son had the proper attention, things could have gone differently.

In another incident, we recall the Virginia Tech shooting that occurred in April 2007. Back in December 2005, a judge ordered Seung-Hui Cho to see outpatient care after making suicidal comments to his roommates where he later received evaluations Carilion-St. Alban’s mental health facility. All three counselors dismissed Cho despite his complaints about his symptoms of depression and anxiety. After, Cho killed 32 people and himself making it the deadliest shooting in the U.S. at the time.

A final incident, two months before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, two Dallas police officers shot and killed a black man holding a screwdriver who charged at them. The video shows the victims mother warning the officers that her son suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as she exits the house. When the officers asked the man to drop the screwdriver, he did not comply, became agitated, attacked them, and was fatally shot. When did the rule change to shoot to kill before deescalating the situation? Seems like every officer replaced their Tasers with another gun. The officers were not indicted of course.

These all resulted in death or injury that could have been prevented had these patients had the proper care they needed. The shift in financial responsibility needs to go back to care facilities and less towards law enforcement and prisons. Obviously cops are not equipped and trained adequately to handle such cases and our prisons are extremely overcrowded. Patients with mental illness need a safe place to acknowledge their illness and get the proper medication. We can no longer ignore the blaring signs.


Opinion Editor, Monica Houston

_MG_8104 (2)Monica is a transfer student from Norfolk State University studying English. Her dog, Furby, is an in-office celebrity and frequently attends production and meetings with Monica.

houstonm@commonwealthtimes.org

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