Snyder calls for mental health reform

October 2, 2011
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LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder has called for changes to mental health programs to keep mentally ill people out of prison. What his administration plans to do about it is unclear.

A disproportionate number of Michigan residents with mental illness wind up behind bars, Snyder said in his recent message on health. He recommended improved mental health treatment of patients in the community and in prisons, new diversion programs to keep mental patients out of prisons, and better communication between department administrations.

A 2010 survey by the National Sheriffs’ Association and Treatment Advocacy Center indicates that in Michigan, it is more than four times more likely that a person with serious mental illness will wind up behind bars instead of a psychiatric hospital. The national average is three times as likely.

That same year, the University of Michigan reported that more than 20 percent of the state prison population had a severe mental disability, said Mark Reinstein, president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan.

After the closings of most state psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s, there was nowhere for the mentally ill to get treatment, Reinstein said. With decreased funding for programs, many patients ended up in prison.

“Some people will tell you that prisons are now the largest psychiatric institutions in the country,” he said. For those needing intensive protective care out in the community, “that resource almost doesn’t exist anymore.”

When mentally ill people don’t have access to community-based care, Reinstein said they are more likely to act out, which can lead to a stint in the corrections system.

Terrence Jungel, executive director for the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said mentally ill prisoners are a “silver bullet” for the jails and prisons.

“If we did a better job of identifying those people who suffer from mental illness and treated them at the local level, we could keep them from getting to prison,” he said. “We did a horrible disservice to the mentally ill when we closed all the state hospitals. We took them out of state hospitals and put them in county jails and prisons.”

“If you don’t serve people with serious mental illness, something usually happens and it’s not usually good,” said Jan Hudson senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Human Services.

The percentage of mentally ill people involved with the justice system, according to Hudson, is up 15 percent from 2008. That means more and more mentally ill people are slipping through community organizations and getting in trouble with the law.

Community mental health organizations will see a $5.1 million reduction in funding starting Oct. 1, the new fiscal year, she said.

Snyder called on the Michigan Department of Community Health to work with the Michigan Department of Corrections and other community groups to improve mental health care. He didn’t outline solutions.

The Michigan Department of Community Health is “well-versed” on Snyder’s action points, said Angela Minicuci, public information officer for the agency. It needs to determine a plan for achieving the goals, whether that is finding funding solutions or evaluating services.

“We’re working to enhance our recovery-oriented systems of care and streamline our administrative functions as health reform continues in order for us to maximize the benefits of dollars invested,” Minicuci wrote in an e-mail.

While Reinstein supports the governor’s message and was part of the report panel that created the recommendations, he said the action points are “not going to cut it” and said the goals were vague and too general in what he believes is “an epidemic” in a system of care that is “not very good.”

When mentally ill people end up in prison, it’s detrimental to both their treatment and Michigan’s struggling economy, said Reinstein.

“Prisons are not conducive to treatment. It’s not the right therapeutic setting for treatment; the treatment that prisoners do get is not always what it should be,” he said. “If you have a full spectrum of truly available and accessible community services, it costs less money to provide that level of service than to house someone in a jail.”

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