Michigan’s broken mental health system has left those who need help with mental health issues empty-handed.
Decades of disinvestment and short-term decisions by both Republican and Democratic leaders have resulted in a system that is overburdened and poorly managed.
Meanwhile, rates of mental illness are skyrocketing, as evidenced by police interactions with people with mental disorders on the streets and in schools.
And mental health counselors on the front lines of the crisis are underpaid and unable to handle caseloads.
This relentless problem should be a priority for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature in the new term. Fortunately, the governor agrees that mental health is at a critical juncture, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our mental health system was dismantled four governors ago and we’ve never really addressed it as a state and created the mental health supports that people need,” Whitmer told The Detroit News editorial board last month.
“I admit there is still good work to be done here,” she said.
Of course, that was true when Whitmer took office four years ago, and she did little to address the problem. This deadline, her expressed concern, must be followed by action.
With her party in full control of the legislature, she has no excuse not to implement a comprehensive plan to address bureaucratic waste and limited access to services, especially for minors, and fully examine how mental health intersects with crime, school safety and education , and poverty and homelessness.
Some steps she should take:
≤ Streamlining the structure of public health boards, which have local control over state-funded treatment and services, as well as that of the 10 regional pre-paid hospital health plans. Both entities are burdened by bureaucratic inefficiencies and lack the flexibility to respond to urgent needs.
≤ Improving pay and working conditions for the most qualified mental health counselors to keep them where they are needed most — providing personal care. Too often, those who work in the mental health system are not much better off financially than those they serve. “I have mental health workers who come to visit clients and while they’re here they get diapers and shoes because they can’t afford to take care of their families,” says Randy Richardville, former Senate Republican Majority Leader and executive director of Oaks of Righteousness Village in Monroe.
≤ Improving services in rural areas that have become mental health deserts without consistent services for those in need.
≤ Make community mental health systems more accountable and effective. Creating common medical records for providers and standardizing services would help. “Clearly more can and should be done in the existing public care system to reduce administrative costs and shift it towards service – not profit.” says Tom Watkins, former state director of mental health.
≤ Opening more long-term and short-term mental health facilities capable of accommodating the homeless and those who might otherwise end up in prison.
The consequences of neglecting mental health are increasingly becoming public. Clashes between police and mentally ill people have turned deadly. Police departments are the default agencies for dealing with mentally unstable people. People who should be in treatment facilities too often end up in prisons that are not equipped for treatment or housing.
Detroit Police Chief James White calls it ongoing “mental health crisis” as well as sheriffs and law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
Detroit police officers are responding to an average of 64 mental health calls a day this year — more than three times as many mental health-related 911 calls as in 2020, according to DPD data.
Whitmer pointed to his investments in adding school mental health counselors and social workers to the state’s roster, but they simply aren’t enough. In schools, mental health is the No. 1 behavioral problem.
Rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among children and teenagers have risen sharply since the COVID pandemic.
The governor says building more children’s psychiatric facilities is a priority. This is important given how ill-equipped some foster homes are to handle those in state care.
The need for leadership on an issue affecting so many Michiganders has never been clearer. Whitmer and the new legislature should tackle this on day one.