Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mental health advocates in SC say service cuts could cost lives


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mental health patients and advocates from across South Carolina rallied at the Statehouse Feb. 16 against budget cuts, saying less treatment could lead to suicides and higher costs in the long run for ER visits and prisons.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness helped coordinate the rally at the Statehouse in Columbia. It says mental illness affects one-fourth of South Carolinians a year.

State executive director Bill Lindsey says the state Mental Health budget in 2008 was $220 million. This year, it's $137 million and lawmakers have asked for a proposal with another 20 percent in cuts for next year, he says, bringing the total budget to $111 million, just over half what it was just three years ago.

"It can increase our visits to ERs. It can increase our homelessness. It can increase the amount of time that folks are spending in jail because they can't conform their behavior to the requirements of the law," he said at the rally.

Raymond Bivens was at the rally holding a sign that read, "Gateway House kept me from being in jail for the last 8 years." Gateway House is a mental health rehabilitation program in Greenville. Bivens suffers from bipolar disorder.

How has the program kept him out of jail? "It would be that way if I wasn't taking my medication, if I wasn't coming into Gateway House every day, if I didn't talk to the staff members here at Gateway House, if I didn't go and see my treatment doctors at mental health facilities," he says.

Or, he adds, he might have even committed suicide.

After the rally, the patients and advocates went inside the Statehouse to lobby lawmakers, urging them not cut funding for mental health in next year's budget.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, says the budget hasn't been written yet and there are no official proposals so far.

"Obviously, we're looking at trying to fund the things we need to fund and that's certainly a critical area," he says of funding for the Department of Mental Health. "It does cost more to send people to the ER than it does to keep them treated through Mental Health and we'll take a look at that and try our best not to make cuts."