Expert will guide changes in mental health system

Published 6:35 pm Monday, March 9, 2020

A federal judge has appointed an expert with more than 40 years’ experience to oversee Mississippi’s effort to provide more mental health care in community settings rather than in mental hospitals.

State legislators are also working to evaluate and change how care is provided. But problems in Mississippi’s mental health care system did not happen overnight, and change will not happen quickly.

The U.S. Justice Department sued Mississippi in 2016 over the way the state was providing mental health services. During a 2019 trial, federal attorneys argued that Mississippi’s movement toward community-based services was too slow, and they noted that hundreds or thousands of people had been forced into hospitalization.

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U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled in September that Mississippi is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said “unjustified” mental hospital confinement is illegal.

“The United States has met its burden and shown that despite the state’s episodic improvement, it operates a system that unlawfully discriminates against persons with serious mental illness,” Reeves wrote.

Reeves ordered state and federal government officials to suggest names of people who could become special master to oversee changes to the mental health system. On Feb. 25, Reeves signed an order naming Michael Hogan as the special master.

Hogan is currently a mental health care consultant and has been a board member for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. He spent 25 years directing state mental health systems in Connecticut, Ohio and New York.

In appointing Hogan, Reeves wrote: “Mississippi’s mental health needs are well-known; the services to expand have already been defined. Many of the challenges and remedies are not disputed.”

Federal attorneys listed several of the state’s alleged transgressions during the trial, including mentally ill people being held in jails because crisis teams didn’t respond. The attorneys said people had been forced to live far from their families because mental health services aren’t available in their hometowns. They also said people made repeat trips to state mental hospitals because there was no effective planning for them to make a transition to community services, and the most intensive kinds of services weren’t being made available.

During this legislative session, Senate Bill 2610 would create a temporary job for a state coordinator of mental health accessibility. That person would be appointed by the governor and would work within the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration to scrutinize how the state is spending money on mental health services.

The Senate Public Health Committee chairman, Democrat Hob Bryan of Amory, told The Associated Press that the coordinator would look for “financial inefficiencies.”

Bryan said he hopes the coordinator would work in closely with the special master appointed by the federal judge.

“The special master doesn’t have to worry about money,” Bryan said, “but we do.”

Legislators have until the end of April to finalize a state budget for the year that begins July 1. It’s not yet clear whether they will propose an increase in spending for mental health services.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health says on its website that in the past several years, it has added and expanded services, including mobile crisis response teams and crisis intervention teams. The department says it has provided mental health first aid training for the public and has provided community transition homes.

The department also says it is “working to enhance transition planning as people leave the state hospitals and return to their communities.”

“We want to provide hope to Mississippians by supporting a continuum of care for people with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, and intellectual or developmental disabilities,” the department’s website says. “By inspiring hope, helping people on the road to recovery, and improving resiliency, Mississippians can succeed.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.