Shortchanging Department of Mental Health a costly mistake

A class action lawsuit was filed on Wednesday against the S.C. Department of Mental Health. 

The issue of mental health tends to enter the public’s awareness when a mentally ill person commits a violent crime — or when it’s time to approve a budget (which always seems to come up far short for mental health services).

Take South Carolina. Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed a $11.3 million increase over last year’s Department of Mental Health budget.

But the sad truth is that the added money, should it be approved, would not even make up for budget cuts at the agency in recent years.

From 2008 to 2012, lawmakers cut DMH’s budget by 40 percent — more than any other state in the country.

And while it can be seen as insensitive to look at the issue as anything but humanitarian, shortchanging DMH ends up costing money — plenty of it.

On Sunday, in the first of a series of articles about mental illness, Post and Courier reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes described the financial burden placed on the public when mentally ill patients, with no place else to go for help, go to emergency rooms.

The state closed its mental hospital in Columbia more than a decade ago after medical science showed that most patients don’t require long-term institutionalization. They can be treated with medications, therapy and some supervision.

But budget cuts have meant fewer services, locally and statewide. So when the mentally ill need help, they go to emergency rooms that are crowded, ill equipped to care for them and very expensive.

Indeed, at the Medical University Hospital, 12 percent of emergency room patients are mentally ill. And many there and at other hospital emergency rooms have to stay longer than expected — often days longer — because there are no mental health beds available. The Department of Mental Health has closed more than half its inpatient psychiatric beds in the past 10 years.

Each day that the patients are in an emergency room, perhaps handcuffed and requiring security guards, costs more money.

That is no way to deal with this public health challenge.

Mental health advocates want more group homes and day programs where people can get care and supervision in a humane and far more cost-effective way.

Everyone has his hand out at budget time, and DMH isn’t the only area of public concern that needs more funding from the state.

However, it is often one of the most overlooked areas. The mentally ill don’t have a strong collective voice to get legislators’ attention.

But the cost of not taking appropriate care of people with mental illnesses is great: With proper treatment, many of them could be contributing members of society; in some cases, mentally ill people harm themselves and others; not providing services for them ends up inflicting high costs, both monetary and otherwise.

It’s time for our legislators to recognize that mental illness is just that — an illness. It isn’t a character flaw.

And it’s time for lawmakers to find a way to increase funding to address it.

Providing adequate mental health services makes sense medically. It makes sense socially. And it makes sense financially.