The status quo

Published 11:50 pm Saturday, September 20, 2008

By Staff
of a crisis
Labor Day’s long gone, the school year has started and political campaigns are intensifying like the hurricanes do before they batter the shore.
Things change with the seasons in most places.
But not in North Carolina’s troubled mental-health system, at least judging from the horror stories in the headlines. People are still dying in mental hospitals. Intolerable conditions still prompt the federal government to cut off funding.
This time it is Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro that’s under fire after a patient died while being ignored and allegations surfaced that another patient was beaten by members of the staff.
Candidates running for governor are predictably outraged about it all when reporters and debate moderators ask them about the deaths or the beatings or the struggles families face finding help in their communities for a loved with a mental illness, disability or substance-abuse problem.
They may issue a press release or send out a statement after a tragedy like the death of the patient in Cherry Hospital. But that’s all about publicity as the lack of any meaningful recommendations makes clear.
Actually fixing the mental-health system is not at the top of their priority list. It never is. Families who need help with a son or daughter or parent with mental illness are not generally the folks holding fundraisers or collecting $4,000 checks from their friends for a campaign.
Political consultants on both sides don’t seem to regard mental health as a winning issue, and political consultants are the ones who decide what is in the 30-second ads and campaign talking points.
This year it is apparently more important to talk about who wants to drill for oil tomorrow or who received a pay raise in office. If mental health does come up, it’s as part of a long list of problems used to illustrate something else, like an overall lack of leadership in the state or maybe as an example of wasteful spending so politicians can rail against the mismanagement of the overly-maligned community support program.
There’s no argument that leadership has been a problem, but leadership also means forcing an issue into the public debate whether it polls well or not, and proposing solutions to the problem, not making vague rhetorical comments designed to avoid specifics that can be criticized.
The community support program was clearly out of control for a time and no doubt wasted millions of dollars, but there are lives being wasted too and right now, patients discharged from mental hospitals with no plan for their care, many of them ending up in homeless shelters. Last year, 1,200 patients were ignored when they were released, and the numbers are not any better this year.
That’s what many families fear now, that their loved one will be neglected or even beaten inside a mental hospital and ignored and forgotten when they leave.
In the past couple weeks, as polls show most races getting closer, the candidates seem to be talking even less about important issues like how to help people struggling with a mental illness.
Not too many months ago, both candidates for governor seemed to be open to keeping Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton on the job in their administration.
Benton no longer seems interested, saying in a press release about the Cherry Hospital problems that he plans to use his “time as Secretary” to address them. His time that it seems will end when a new governor is sworn in.
Whatever you think of his performance, nobody ought to question that Benton is committed to improving the mental-health system to provide services to people who need them. He came out of retirement last year to take this job, though you have to wonder if he’d do it again.
It is also hard to imagine that he knew then how deep and systemic the dysfunction had become in the six years since the mental reforms of 2001. It doesn’t feel like anybody running for governor gets it yet.
The crisis is literally taking lives and devastating families. That deserves more from people who want to be governor than an opportunistic press release or a claim that the reforms were doomed from the beginning.
It is hard to be optimistic that the next governor will make fundamental changes in the mental-health system a priority in his or her administration if it is not one in their campaign. The horror in the headlines may well continue.