Gary Mihelish probably feels like a broken record.
The Helena dentist has been cajoling, sweet-talking and arguing for years in the name of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Progress has come erratically — two steps forward and one step back, he'd probably say.
Mihelish and fellow advocates for the mentally ill are approaching the upcoming session of the Montana Legislature with more than the usual amount of hope, for two reasons:
The state's cash flow is well into the black — the surplus is approaching a billion dollars; The sitting governor has indicated support for at least some of their causes.
In fact, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has $5.8 million in his budget to renovate the Xanthopoulos Building at Warm Springs, converting the old forensic unit into a secure, 120-bed psychiatric unit for court-ordered mentally ill offenders.
He also has money in the budget to staff the new facility.
Warns Mihelish: "It will not be successful unless the people who are released from that facility receive appropriate follow-up care."
That's the broken-record part of Mihelish's message. He and others have been trying for years to get beefed-up community services for the mentally ill.
In one of the sadder episodes in the history of how Montana treats the mentally ill, the state made a big push to "deinstitutionalize" patients, spreading across the state, usually in their home communities. The problem was that support for those patients has never been sufficient.
An upshot has been the "F" grade given by NAMI to Montana's mental health care system.
The state has few crisis beds for psychiatric emergencies, and the state ranks second in the nation in per capita suicides, which often result from untreated or improperly treated mental illnesses.
But there may be hope on that front, as well.
The head of the Department of Public Health and Human Services' addictive and mental disorders division said the administration wants very much to provide exactly the kind of community-based help that Mihelish seeks for the mentally ill.
"It's a big, aggressive budget to really better develop the community services," said Joyce DeCunzo. "This administration is keenly interested in mental health. That's a positive thing."
We couldn't agree more. The Legislature, too, should support these mental health care initiatives.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
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