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Mental Health System Needs Legislature's Boost

By Thomas Bornemann and Cynthia Wainscott

A Hidden Shame, the continuing series in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is chronicling inhumane neglect, abuse and death in Georgia's state mental hospitals. Unfortunately, these very real problems in the state hospital system are just the tip of the iceberg. Under the water line, and out of most people's view, are a huge number of problems in community service systems that too often fail our most underserved and vulnerable citizens.

People with mental illnesses can live successful, productive lives in their own communities when they have timely access to high quality services, but too many Georgians are unable to get the help they need. Our state is ranked 10th for population, yet we are ranked 43rd for per capita spending on public mental health services.

There are numerous deficits in the public system:

  • Restrictions on medications and recently instituted co-payments prevent people from getting the treatment their doctors prescribe.
  • An acute shortage of trained mental health professionals affects many areas of the state.
  • Many people with mental illnesses are homeless or inappropriately housed due to a severe shortage of supported housing.

Furthermore, our children are at particular risk. We do not have an adequate system of care, a coordinated approach to working with children with serious mental health needs and their families. Tragically, families are sometimes advised to press charges against their children, or even relinquish custody, so they can receive mental health services in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Without adequate services, both children and adults with mental illnesses fall into overcrowded and under-resourced hospitals, or into jails and prisons. Some become homeless. Too many die preventable deaths by exposure living on the streets, by lack of medical care, and by suicide. In fact, people with serious mental illnesses served by the public system die on average 25 years earlier.

Two steps are urgently needed:

  • Senate Resolution 363, which has been passed by the Georgia Senate, should be passed by the House. It would create a legislative mental health commission to move Georgia's system from its current difficulties to a model system. The commission would provide to the Legislature concrete information about services that have been used successfully in states to remedy problems similar to the ones here. Strong bipartisan support for this commission has been expressed by former first lady Rosalynn Carter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
  • The Mental Health Ombudsman Office, which was authorized by legislation in 1999, should be funded now to assure safety while the system is being improved.

It is past time to fix the problems lurking under the waterline. Georgia has an obligation to improve our mental health system and prevent more needless deaths. If Senate Resolution 363 is not passed, the Georgia policy-makers will have remained silent about the needless deaths exposed in the AJC series - with not a single piece of mental health legislation passed during this session. The people of Georgia, through our Legislature, have an opportunity to protect the safety of some of our most underserved and vulnerable citizens.

Thomas Bornemann is director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program. Cynthia Wainscott, immediate past board chair of Mental Health America, has been nominated by President Bush to serve on the National Council on Disability.

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