Mental health aid hurt by budget cuts

Dear Editor,

Over the past year, citizens of Alabama who work for or receive various services through our state’s Department of Mental Health have nervously watched and waited to see how badly the effects of the proposed budget cut will impact them.

This year the department suffered a $28 million drop in funding in the proposed budget for 2012.

Although the state legislature has not yet approved the budget cuts, those who would potentially be affected have been planning for the worst. In response to this crisis, the commissioner for Alabama’s Department of Mental Health, Zelia Baugh, has stepped up to keep the public updated.

This budget cut could harm the state’s entire mental health system, causing a variety of tragedies to occur from internal cuts to entire institutions or centers closing their doors, and even this would not pull Alabama’s Mental Health Department out of the hole.

We have to take a step back and look at what these decisions would do to the populations affected.

State mental health systems do not just provide care and services to those with intellectual disabilities (previously referred to as the mentally retarded), but also to those suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorders. Even those seeking substance abuse treatments usually find services within the mental health system. One of the main problems likely to arise from these proposed cuts would be a lengthening of the waiting lists for those waiting to be placed in community-based mental health centers. We are seeing a trend that is shifting care of the mentally instable away from large institutional settings and towards community-based settings. This allows clients to be closer to their families.

I am a mental health technician employed with Chilton/Shelby Mental Health Center. I work directly with more than 20 clients suffering with severe mental illness in two different group homes.

I teach them how to cook and serve meals, do household chores, and how to properly administer their medications.

Earlier this year, our company’s CEO, Melodie Crawford, sent a company-wide email informing all of her employees that the Department of Mental Health budget was in danger. Employees were urged to contact elected officials in the state and let them know that these budget cuts could cause a 40 percent termination of clients and a 40 percent layoff of staff.

Where are these mentally ill clients supposed to go if they are sent away from my center? If mental health suffers the budget cuts everyone is hearing about there are three likely possibilities: Clients will be sent back to state hospitals; clients will become homeless; or clients will wind up in an already overcrowded prison system.

Does our state legislature and governor care so little for the well-being and quality of life of these people?

Brandon T. Heath

University of Montevallo