Amid high demand, states cut mental health care

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 1:12 AM

DENVER -- At the Ohio Department of Mental Health, Christy Murphy's days are filled with calls from people seeking help she can't seem to give.

They plead with her, but budget cuts have trimmed services so much that she is not sure where to send them.

The desperation on the other end of the line hits painfully close to home for Murphy. Her 19-year-old son, Christopher, suffers from a range of mental problems, including one that's linked to a short-tempered, hostile attitude. Although he has coverage through Medicaid, he can't get the services he needs. His mother says he has no psychiatrist, no case manager and no medication.

"I think it's 100 percent about money," said Murphy, who lives in Columbus with her son.

An onslaught of budget cuts has hit mental health services in states struggling to weather economic woes. Even in better times, help could be hard to find. Now, just as demand is soaring, billions of dollars in cuts have shuttered facilities, prolonged waiting times to get services and purged countless patients from the rolls.

"We're getting some epidemic-proportion demands for services," said Mary Ruiz, chief executive at the Manatee Glens mental health facility in Bradenton, Fla., which has had to cut charity care for the indigent by $2 million a year.

State mental health funding was on a steady upward trajectory for three decades until the Great Recession hit in 2007. Over the last two fiscal years, states have cut a combined $1.8 billion from the public mental health system, according to a recent report by the National Alliance for Mental Illness, an advocacy group that tracks mental health spending in all 50 states.

All of this comes as experts see the dueling economic stresses of job losses and home foreclosures escalating depression, anxiety and suicide. Nine state mental health agencies have reported increased emergency-room visits for psychiatric care since the recession began, and five more reported higher suicide rates, the state mental health association reported.

The cuts have hit every aspect of state behavioral health systems, which served 6.4 million people nationwide in 2009, according to the most current federal government statistics. Only four states made no cuts to mental health services between fiscal 2009 and the fiscal year that will end in 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. As states face the end of federal stimulus spending, mental health advocates expect the situation to get much worse this year and next.

"I'm begging for help. Begging. And there's no one who can help me," said Sandra Roskilly of Denver, whose 15-year-old son Gregory left the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan when its children's ward was shuttered last year due to budget cuts.

Roskilly's son has returned home, where his grandmother has moved in to help care for him. But she worries the boy is getting worse without residential treatment, sometimes breaking furniture and shoving his grandmother. She wonders aloud if he might pose a threat to others without the proper care.

"What's going to happen when he kills somebody?" she remembers asking a doctor.

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