Editorial: An ailing system


Published: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 2:45 p.m.

There is plenty of agreement on both sides of the political aisle about the need for more and better mental health treatment, as one way of stemming the number of mass shootings by those who are clearly emotionally disturbed but go undetected.

We have a better idea. Let's provide more and better health treatment for everyone.

Before we even begin having a conversation about funding additional mental health programs for those who may be potential mass murderers, maybe we, especially here in Florida, should take stock of our mental health system as it exists today.

Here in Florida, what we will find is a sorely deficient, underfunded and overwhelmed network that delivers more than should be expected. Those who come in contact with it most often — mental health, health care and law enforcement professionals — will confirm that Florida's mental health system is woefully inadequate to meet the state's needs. Here are some facts:

■ Florida ranks 49th in the nation in per capita mental health funding, at $39 per resident. It is an improvement over last year when we ranked 50th, but still way, way behind the national average of $129 per capita. Adjusted for inflation, Florida now spends less per person on mental health than it did in the 1950s.

■ The Florida Department of Children and Families estimates the state's mental health programs meet just 34 percent of adult needs and 27 percent of children's needs. Last year, the Legislature slashed mental health funding, through a combination of budget cuts and contract management changes, by $24 million.

■ Half of all mental health dollars in our state are spent on institutional care, meaning that too many people who have relatively manageable mental illness cannot be served because those with the worst conditions are consuming most of the money.

■ Florida's sheriffs and police chiefs say that each year 125,000 people needing mental health treatment are arrested and booked into our jails, and a recent study by the groups found that 31 percent of women and 14 percent of men entering our jails have “major mental illness.”

There is little argument that more and better mental health services could be a deterrent to the mass shootings that are plaguing our nation. It is equally evident, however, that the need for enhanced mental health care would benefit all of society — on our streets, in our jails, in our emergency rooms, indeed, in our schools.

It is not just about money, but the lack of funding is a huge reason that Florida's mental health services are so inadequate. Being 49th is not a point of pride, yet Gov. Rick Scott's newly released budget proposal keeps mental health funding steady.

More mental health services may or may not stop another Sandy Hook, but there are so many other human tragedies they could prevent here in Florida, if only we had the programs, the services, to address our state's mental health needs.

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