West Virginia has long been known as a state that has an inadequate and failing mental health system that too often locks people with mental illness away in prisons rather than provide treatment for them. The West Virginia Legislature seeks to change that with its recent passage of the Mental Health Stabilization Act of 2009.
The bill, Senate Bill 672, is intended to rebuild West Virginia’s community-based mental health system.
“As the bill says, the Legislature has determined that the community mental health system is in a state of crisis,” lead bill sponsor and Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said.
“The bill clearly states: ‘There are not sufficient community resources to meet the needs of the state’s population.’”
Along with legislators, several other groups have recognized the crisis in the mental health care system, including health care providers, advocates for people with mental illness, patients, sheriffs who are dealing with more mentally ill people in the criminal justice system, county commissioners faced with paying regional jail bills for inmates with mental health issues, and others in county and municipal governments.
“This is a serious problem that is affecting all levels of our society,” Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas and another lead sponsor of the bill, said. “The state must deal with it before it gets any worse.”
The bill notes that the state has been “the subject of various court orders as result of the manner in which it dealt with people with mental health needs and the Legislature desires to be proactive and resolve issues surrounding mental illness without the intervention of the courts.”
Last summer, the court-appointed Ombudsman for Behavioral Health David Sudbeck found Bateman Hospital in Huntington, one of two state psychiatric hospitals, to be overcrowded and understaffed. In January, the West Virginia Supreme Court agreed with Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom that he should be allowed to conduct evidentiary hearings into conditions at Bateman Hospital and also into whether the state is providing sufficient services for individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
“It’s important to get Senate Bill 672 signed into law, because without legislative action to fix the mental health system, the courts could very well impose a more costly solution,” John Russell, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association, said.
The bill recognizes that the current rates of involuntary mental health commitments and the incarceration of people with mental health needs are using significant state resources. Its premise is that those resources could be used more effectively and efficiently in community-based mental health services, which should reduce the number of people needing involuntary commitments or incarceration.
“More than 37,000 people each year in our regional jails have needed treatment for mental illness,” Delegate Scott Varner, D-Marshall, said. “That places a burden on our counties that would be unnecessary if more people could receive help from mental health providers in their communities.”
In its recent Grading the States 2009 report, the National Alliance on Mental Illness lowered the grade for West Virginia’s mental health system from a D in 2006 to an F in 2009, saying that an “already inadequate system is deteriorating.”
Source: A Mental Health System in Crisis