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Gov must tackle mental health | News, Sports, Jobs

Michigan’s broken mental health system has left those who need help with mental health issues empty-handed.

Decades of disinvestment and short-term fixes led by Republican and Democratic leaders alike has resulted in a system that is overrun and poorly managed.

Meanwhile the rates of mental illness are skyrocketing, as evident in police interactions with mentally disturbed individuals on the streets and in schools. And the mental health counselors who are on the front lines of the crisis are underpaid and can’t keep up with caseloads.

This unrelenting problem must be a priority for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature in the new term. Fortunately, the governor agrees mental health is at a critical point, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our mental health system was dismantled four governors ago and we have never as a state really addressed it and created the mental health supports that people need,” Whitmer said to The Detroit News editorial board last month.

“I recognize there’s more good work to do here,” she said.

Of course, that was true when Whitmer took office four years ago, and she did little to address the issue. This term, her expressed concern must be followed up with action.

With her party in full control of the Legislature, she has no excuse not to implement a comprehensive plan to address bureaucratic waste and limited access to services, especially for juveniles, and fully explore how mental health intersects with crime, school safety and education, and poverty and homelessness.

Some steps she should take:

— Streamline the structure of Community Health Boards, which have local control of state-funded treatment and services, and also that of the 10 regional Prepaid Inpatient Health Plans. Both entities are encumbered by bureaucratic inefficiency and lack the flexibility to respond to urgent needs.

— Improve pay and working conditions for the most skilled mental health counselors to keep them where they’re needed most — providing personal care. Too often, those who work in the mental health system are not much better off financially than those they serve. “I’ve got mental health workers who come down to visit clients, and while they’re here they get diapers and shoes because they can’t afford to take care of their own families,” says Randy Richardville, the former Republican Senate majority leader and executive director of Oaks of Righteousness Village in Monroe.

— Beef up services in rural areas that have become mental health care deserts, without consistent services for those in need.

— Make Community Mental Health systems more accountable and efficient. Creating common medical files for providers and standardizing services would help. “Clearly more can and should be done in the existing public system of care to reduce administrative overhead and redirect to service — not profit,” says Tom Watkins, a former state mental health director.

— Open more long-term and short-term mental health facilities capable of taking in the homeless and those who might otherwise end up in jail.

The consequences of neglecting mental health are increasingly becoming public. Confrontations between police and mentally ill individuals have turned deadly. Police departments are the default agencies for dealing with the mentally unstable. People who should be in medical treatment facilities are too often landing in jails that are not equipped to treat or house them.

Detroit Police Chief James White calls it an ongoing “mental health crisis,” as do sheriffs and law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

Detroit police officers this year are responding to an average of 64 mental health runs per day — more than three times as many mental health-related 911 calls as in 2020, according to DPD data.

Whitmer pointed to her investments in adding school mental health counselors and social workers to the state’s roster, but there simply are not enough. In schools, mental health is the No. 1 behavioral issue. Rates of depression and suicidal thoughts in kids and teens are up sharply since the COVID pandemic.

The governor says building more juvenile psychiatric facilities is a priority. That’s important, considering how ill-equipped some foster facilities are to handle those in the state’s care.

The need for leadership on an issue affecting so many Michiganians has never been so clear. Whitmer and the incoming Legislature should tackle this on Day One.

— Detroit News

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