Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Georgia Officials in State of Denial

The Seal of the State of Georgia still crowns abandoned buildings in Milledgeville, artifacts attesting that responsibility for providing mental health services once focused there. Closed long ago, those doors shut on a sometimes shameful past, and hopes opened for a better way. Now, once again, controversy and criticism surround Georgia Mental Health Services.

AJC writers Alan Judd, Andy Miller, and James Salzer have recently documented state government neglect, budgetary shell-games, and oversight failures, including loosing track of the whereabouts of patients, $8.4 million in funding cuts, and Georgia officials not even having an original idea about mental health or actual experience to fill their own report rather than plagiarizing from the findings of another state. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a long and honorable history of holding officials’ feet to the fire on Georgia mental health. Jack Nelson, distinguished, chief Washington correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, won a Pulitzer Prize when he worked at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960's for his reporting on conditions at Milledgeville State Hospital.

I asked my friend Kristina Simms of Perry about the current crisis, because she is an activist and advocate for mental health and mental health services. She told me, “Over the past decades there has been a move toward de-institutionalizing mental patients in Georgia, so that services could be rendered in the community. The problem is that the money did not follow the consumers into the community. Community mental health did not grow.”

She acknowledges that “Georgia is not the only state that has an underfunded and inadequate mental health delivery system. Nor is it the only state in which the criminal justice system has become the shadow mental hospital system. The problem is national. Available treatment for mental illness in terms of medicines is better than ever, but the delivery system is not reaching enough people.”

“Money saved on mental health treatment and facilities is money spent in the criminal justice system, the emergency rooms, and police and EMT calls,” Ms. Simms points out. “For so many areas that need reform, best practices are already known from research --- but will such practices be funded and implemented? That's the biggie. Like with Georgia's mental health system. They know better but they just won't fund and implement.”

Eric Spencer, Georgia director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says, “It shouldn't surprise anyone that Georgia's mental health care system is in crisis. It's not just failing. It's broken.” He writes in an editorial in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “One in four Americans struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives. In Georgia, approximately 623,000 people struggle with major depression, 242,000 with bipolar disorder and 93,000 with schizophrenia... For schizophrenia alone, more Americans live with the disease than those who live with HIV/AIDS.”

"Mental illness does not discriminate between Republicans and Democrats," Mr. Spencer notes.

(Photo of old Milledgeville State Hospital by Kristina Simms)

Copyright 2008 by William C. Cotter

1 comment:

Tina said...

Thanks, Bill. I have forwarded your insightful comments to just about everyone on my list. The more we can all do to raise public awareness about the deficiencies in mental health care in the United States and in Georgia, the better. It might interest you to know that my gg-grandfather, William Boling Moore, was the first "steward" (on-site manager, not medical supervisor) of the "asylum" in Milledgeville. His wife Mary was the "matron." They lived and raised their children in a home at the state asylum. At that time it was a simple farm-like setting and probably as wholesome an arrangement as could be managed in that era.


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