Mental health advocates press for improved care in SC

Greenville NewsMarch 13, 2014 

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Tyler Pearson, a member of Gateway in Greenville, an agency providing programs for those in recovery from mental illness, says he enjoys mental health rallies because they show support for those in recovery.

“It means a lot,” he said Wednesday, minutes after a rally concluded on the Statehouse steps. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Pearson was among more than 100 people, including state and local officials, mental health professionals, friends and family members of those suffering mental illness and those in recovery who gathered to hear lawmakers and state officials talk about the importance of mental health and plans they have for improving the system.

“We are here today to challenge our leaders and to educate them on the systemic failures of our broken institutions, and to encourage them to take action,” said Paton Blough, a Greenville mental health advocate.

“We’re here to come together and realize just how bad the mental health crisis is in South Carolina, and how much we desperately need more than lip service from our leaders.”

Blough and others, including some lawmakers, said they are watching the state Department of Corrections in the wake of a judge’s 45-page order in January finding the agency had violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners in horrific ways.

Judge Michael Baxley ordered the prison system to develop a plan for improvements within six months. Since then, prison officials and the plaintiffs in the case have agreed to mediation to discuss solutions.

“We need to let our elected leaders know that we are watching to make sure that a comprehensive plan is developed to correct the problems and that the legislators provide the necessary funding so that this courageous order will be fully realized,” Blough said.

Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat, said lawmakers have to monitor the situation to ensure the money spent going forward is on mental health improvements and not on lawyers’ fees.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat, told the crowd that he plans to explore the order and to ask “the appropriate questions.”

“We have an obligation to treat people with respect and dignity,” he said. “We are a part of you and you are a part of us.”

Kimpson said if the Legislature has a surplus, it should use a part of that surplus on the mentally ill, especially on those who are incarcerated.

Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican, told the crowd that he has filed legislation allowing all counties to hold a referendum to designate revenue from property taxes to support local mental health centers.

He said one consequence of budget cutbacks from the state to local governments in recent years has been cuts to local mental health centers. His legislation would allow each county to hold a binding referendum to use up to 0.6 mills of property tax for local mental health centers.

“If we can succeed in that area, maybe that will be a blueprint to help fund these areas,” he said.

Bill Lindsey, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said only two counties — Richland and Lexington — currently designate millage for mental health.

“If this goes statewide, this would be huge for local mental health,” he said.

Tony Keck, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the crowd that because of the work of mental health supporters and their leaders, “We’ve started to change the way we spend those (Medicaid) dollars.”

“We’re working right now to put more money into support of housing, into support of employment, all those things we’ve been told for years are needed.”

Other lawmakers said they planned to help keep funding at the Department of Mental Health at or above its current level.

Funding to the agency was cut by about 40 percent between the 2008-09 fiscal year and 2011-12, when the department was appropriated $131.5 million.

The agency’s funding has since been increased and last year received about $176 million, still $41million less than in 2008-09.

The House version of the budget would add $10.5 million to the agency for the year beginning in July, with an additional $2.25 million in one-time money for electronic medical records.

Blough said Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to fix roads and bridges in the state would spend more than $1 billion over the next decade.

“Where is the billion-dollar plan to invest in one of our most vulnerable populations, those who suffer from treatable mental illnesses?” he asked. “Hey, I like smooth roads as much as the next guy, but I would rather have a few cars break down than a human being.”

Blough said he was speaking Wednesday on behalf of those who couldn’t be there to speak for themselves, those in hospitals, or in crisis or in jails and prisons.

“I have been behind those bars, I have been in those hospitals, I have had times without any hope,” said Blough, who has suffered from bi-polar disorder. “I want to tell them and you though that there is hope and that together we can work to make the conditions of those in need much better.”

Elaine Hester of Greenville, a former NAMI board member, said the rallies serve to help educate legislators.

“People in the Legislature need to know that it is much more cost-effective to treat someone than to incarcerate them and in a state that has budget issues, I would think this message would be pretty clear and something they would want to put some attention to,” she said.

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