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State takes unique approach to invest in mental services

For years, Mississippians accused of a crime, but also needing a mental health evaluation, sat in local jails because of a lack of space at the state hospital.

Here in Lincoln County, a local man with a history of mental illness waited two years in the county jail for a bed to open up at the state hospital so he could receive an evaluation to determine if he was fit to stand trial for his alleged crimes.

After a Daily Leader story highlighted his case, a bed opened up and he was evaluated.

The state is finally working to correct the problem, pledging to invest $19.3 million in a new 83-bed unit. Previously, it had only a handful of forensic beds for evaluations. 

The Department of Mental Health said the $19 million was a “blending of funding” from a variety of sources – a $1 million bond from the Legislature, consolidation of departments and services within the agency, reprioritizing previously-planned projects and one-time money from the Division of Medicaid, Mississippi Today reported.

Local jails are not equipped to house offenders who belong at the state hospital. It results in more local expenses, and those waiting evaluation may not receive the treatment they need.

Expanding the forensic bed unit didn’t happen because the Legislature suddenly felt generous. Lawmakers have decreased funding to the Department of Mental Health in recent years.

Rather, it came about through a collaboration between the state and attorneys representing groups who have fought to force the state to provide services as federal law requires.

The goal was to get the state to provide more beds without resorting to a lawsuit.

“In other states, they’d tried the litigation route,” Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center,  said. “The litigation had taken a long time and many of those states were not in a significantly better position after it went through the courts.”

The result is a unique approach that will benefit Mississippians in need of mental care, as long as the state holds up its end of the deal. It will also help the state adhere to federal law concerning mental evaluations.

We are grateful for those who fought to make this happen.