Cutting state spending for mental health doesn't cut the number of people who need mental health care. Instead, one might conjecture that such cuts, and the stresses they bring, would drive up the number of depressed people.

But one doesn't have to conjecture to conclude that such cuts, in the end, will not necessarily save the state money. The opposite just might be true.

South Carolina, like virtually every other state across the country, is now forced to make deep reductions in spending to produce a balanced budget.

But legislators should remember what their mothers said to them about being penny wise and pound foolish. They should be aware that some cuts would end up costing the state more than they would save.

For example, studies have shown that people who need mental health care and cannot get it are 3.6 times more likely to seek help at an emergency room, become homeless or suicidal, or end up in jail.

The state's average annual cost for treating one mental health patient is $2,400. The cost of one emergency room visit can equal that. And the state's annual cost for incarcerating one inmate is more than $16,000 -- and that doesn't include court and police expenses. Indeed, county jails house a significant number of people being treated for mental illness and are the largest provider of psychiatric beds in the state.

That is one reason South Carolina, until now, has made access to prescription drugs easier for mental health patients. But the Legislature, seeking ways to cut expenses, is considering limiting Medicaid patients to generic prescription drugs. Gov. Nikki Haley has endorsed that idea.

The most important part of a mental patient's treatment is medication, and some prescription medications are not available in generic form.

Without the proper medication, some patients will get sicker and get in trouble with the law or end up in an expensive emergency room.

Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, wants to fine-tune the cuts to allow Department of Mental Health patients already on non-generic medications to continue on them. That would not include Medicaid patients who are being seen by private psychiatrists.

In the necessary course of chopping the budget, some good programs must suffer funding reductions.

But those cuts should be made only with a reasonable assurance that they will save -- not cost -- the state money in the long run.