By Representative Christopher England
I think I have seen enough.
I have watched over the years as the Alabama Department of Mental Health and the state of Alabama has closed facility after facility all over the state on the promise that the cost savings would be re-invested back into the community.
Supposedly, the money saved would go towards shrinking waiting lists of thousands for services and creating a better network of care for individuals back in their home communities. In Tuscaloosa, we fought them because we realized that they were making empty promises and writing checks on an already overdrawn account. Unfortunately, we lost Partlow. However, with the effort of the entire community and after years of hard work and struggle, we were able to save Bryce Hospital.
If you don’t believe me when I say that they are making empty promises and writing worthless checks, then do me a favor. Please call the Department of Mental Health and ask them how many people are on the waiting lists for various services. Also, ask them how long the wait is for services. Go to your local county jail and ask the Sheriff how many of those incarcerated are on some sort of psychotropic medication. See if you can locate crisis intervention services in your area and ask them how long it could take for someone in a crisis to get some help. See if you can find a family in Alabama whose struggle is so difficult that they are hoping that their loved one gets arrested so they can find some help. Despite the promises, it appears to me and many others that things have not changed.
Now we are supposed to sit by and watch on the sidelines while they close another hospital. North Alabama Regional Hospital in Decatur is scheduled to close on or before June 30th of this year. Once it closes, Bryce Hospital, Taylor-Hardin, and the Mary Harper Geriatric Center, all in Tuscaloosa, will be the only state run mental facilities left. Currently all of them are either at capacity or extremely close to it.
To make matters even worse, it has also been announced that Alabama Psychiatric Services will be closing its doors on February 13th. It is estimated that 28,000 patients throughout the state will be without care. A system that is currently struggling to deal with its current patient caseload will now have to find a way to deal with 28,000 additional people scrambling to find care.
A recent report by Mental Health America ranked Alabama 49th in access to care, which measures access to insurance as well as the available mental health workforce. Something tells me that we are probably going to be number 50 the next time this ranking comes out.
Now, I am not placing all the blame on the Alabama Department of Mental Health. With all the tax increases being discussed and all of this talk about prisons, have you heard anyone say that we need to invest more money into caring for individuals with mental illness? Have you heard anyone talk about investing money into mental health courts to keep people suffering with mental illness out of our prisons? Have you heard anyone discuss creating crisis intervention teams within local law enforcement to divert those in crisis away from our county jails? And lastly, have you heard anyone discuss investing real dollars into community resources so our fellow Alabamians have a place to go for treatment after a facility is closed to save money? Absolutely not. It is not an issue because we haven’t made it one.
So, its time that we fight back. Closing another hospital under the current conditions is not only irresponsible but it is also putting lives at risk. If we continue on this current path, the Federal Courts may not only be emptying our overcrowded prisons, but they will also be ordering us to rebuild and re-open mental health facilities as well. We must demand better. Some say that a community is measured by how it takes care of those that can’t care for themselves. If that is the case, Alabama is failing miserably.
Representative England is a Democrat from Tuscaloosa. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2006.