COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley wants South Carolina to invest more in mental health services, a commitment advocates see as a lifeline for their struggling loved ones.
The first-term Republican said she will propose to increase spending on mental health services in her executive budget, which is due out in January. The budget will be a guide to help lawmakers craft their spending plan.
"We've got to start dealing with the problem," the governor said. "We have to prioritize it because what's happening now is these victims of mental illness are ending up in jail or in the hospital, and what they really need is treatment.
"These are people who can function on a day-to-day basis if they just get the services they need ... And by not giving them the treatment they need, it's only costing taxpayers more money later."
Haley did not have a specific number in mind for an increase in mental health funding, but she said law enforcement and mental health will get special attention in her proposed budget.
Bill Lindsey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness South Carolina, said advocates such as himself don't have deep pockets to lobby lawmakers as other special interests do. The governor's position could really help advance their cause, given the weight of her voice, Lindsey said.
Steep declines in tax collections, due to the recession and to the state's increased reliance on sales taxes, have resulted in lawmakers making deep budget cuts in recent years. But a report by Lindsey's group shows that the situation is especially serious for mental health.
South Carolina has cut spending in that area by a higher percentage than any other state in the last four years, the recent report found. About $74 million, or 39 percent of the budget for the state Department of Mental Health has been slashed since 2009.
The cuts mean facilities have fewer in-patient beds and less to offer for outpatient resources. That pushes more patients to emergency rooms and others to jail. Some commit suicide.
"If people get treatment, they can do better and go back to being productive members of society," Lindsey said.
Mary Ann Gallagher, a 57-year-old grandmother of four from Summerville, who suffers with bouts of depression, said that without commitment from government, state and federal, she worries about geriatric patients, including herself one day. Gallagher, a former high school science teacher, said she has support from her husband and two grown daughters, but even with the family support she has had trouble.
Gallagher said she has had depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder throughout her life. She received treatment at the Medical University of South Carolina's Seasons program, an intensive outpatient service for people 40 and older.
"I was depressed to the point where I couldn't function. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't take care of myself," she said. "The Seasons program has taught me tools, coping skills that I need to use on a daily basis just to take care of myself."
Gallagher said she now focuses much of her life on giving back. She volunteers at Seasons, including greeting patients and helping to teach them about nutrition and stress relief. Gallagher is also on the Patient Family Partnership Council at the medical university.
The eight-member volunteer council, established in April, is made up of mental health patients and family members of patients, Torri Jacobsen, coordinator for the medical university's Patient and Family-Centered Care, said. The council's purpose is to improve the services the facility can provide, specifically in its Institute of Psychiatry. For instance, the council raised the idea to train security staff at the hospital on the signs and characteristics of mental illness. Jacobsen said that as a result mental health advocates provided training for security staff on Wednesday, which builds understanding.
"They really have opened our eyes to not only the great things we have done for patients and families but also to the opportunities that are out there," she said.
The council is a low-cost idea that is helping to improve services, despite the budget cuts, Steve Rublee, administrator for Institute of Psychiatry, said. Although the intent is to enrich patient care, the initiative could ultimately lead to some cost savings, he said.
Rublee said he is also hopeful that the governor's call for more cash to be shifted to mental health programs can make a difference.
"It's sorely needed," he said.