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Published: Monday, 3/23/2009

Mental health care in peril

AT A TIME of enormous financial

challenge and stress when mental health services are needed even more urgently than before, many hard-pressed states, including Ohio, are wont to cut or reduce those services. The alarming pattern is evident in a new national report card by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

According to the NAMI report, a trend of declining mental health care throughout the country portends "a vicious cycle that can lead to ruin." The advocacy group gave the nation as a whole a grade of "D" for the way it serves its mentally ill population.

That was the same grade given three years ago when NAMI began gauging states' progress after a presidential commission condemned the nation's mental health care system as fragmented and inadequate. Since then, budget cuts, the closing of two state mental hospitals, and restricted access to psychiatric medications have dropped Ohio's grade from close to an "A" in 2003 to a "C." Michigan received a "D," also a decline in its rating.

Once there was great hope in Ohio that the state's mental health system would be strengthened under Gov. Ted Strickland, a trained psychologist and formerly a leading advocate in Congress for people with serious mental illnesses.

But the recession and strained resources conspired to produce great disappointment. "Instead of moving forward as we should have," said Jim Mauro, of NAMI Ohio, "we have fallen miserably backward, and in the process, have left many of our most vulnerable citizens behind." The group did say Ohio is making significant improvement in reducing the number of people with mental illness who are pushed into the criminal-justice system and credited the state for developing innovative projects such as a toll-free phone system to provide information and resources to consumers and families.

But the only comprehensive state-by-state assessment of the public mental health care system in the nation is a disturbing one that should give pause to every legislator in the land considering further cuts in critical mental health services needed now more than ever.



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