South Carolina cut a higher percentage of its mental health spending than any other state nationally over the four most recent fiscal years, according to a report released by an advocacy group last week.

The state cut nearly $74 million from the Department of Mental Health -- about 39 percent of its budget -- since fiscal 2009, according to the report compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

The department "is approaching crisis mode with funding at 1987 levels," according to a statement from Bill Lindsey, the executive director of NAMI's South Carolina chapter. "These cuts mean that clinics, crisis centers and hospitals get closed. Admissions are frozen ... Even where services remain, staff is cut, wait times for appointments are stretched."

The S.C. Department of Mental Health challenged parts of NAMI's data, which excluded outside funding sources such as grants. With those included, the department's actual spending was down about $30 million in the past four fiscal years -- significantly less than the NAMI report suggests, said Mark Binkley, the department's attorney.

But the department acknowledged many of NAMI's findings, saying in a statement it will need more money starting next fiscal year "just to maintain its current service array."

"DMH is not always able to provide timely service to all of South Carolina's citizens who need mental health services," the department said in a statement. "DMH still provides the essential elements of a comprehensive system of behavioral health services to the state's neediest citizens. However ... the agency's staff has been stretched thin."

To cope with budget cuts, the department closed or consolidated community mental health centers, forcing some patients to travel farther to get services. It has reduced services at the remaining facilities and is seeing thousands fewer patients annually, according to its statement. It also closed five residential facilities, which once provided long-term placements for 40 people, the statement said.

In its report, NAMI called on states to reverse budget cuts and improve data collection to better measure patient progress.

Lindsey, the S.C. NAMI director, said any reductions in mental health spending lead to increases in spending elsewhere, such as homeless shelters or jails. Ronald Rzepkowski, a member of the group's Charleston affiliate, agreed.

"If you don't pay to support mental health, the costs come back to you when people show up in ERs or are incarcerated," Rzepkowski said.

Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550 or on Twitter @renee_dudley.