The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

January 23, 2013

After shootings, states rethink mental health cuts

(Continued)

Both Pennsylvania and Utah have put aside plans to scale back their mental health systems.

And Kansas, which cut mental health spending by 12 percent from 2008 to 2011, announced this month a new $10 million program aimed at identifying mental health dangers.

"I don't think we're well set as a state at all to be able to deal with these intensive cases" of mental illness, acknowledged Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, usually an avid proponent of downsizing social programs.

The sudden pause reflects anxiety from last year's shootings in a Colorado movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school. Although little is known about the mental health of either gunman, the attacks have shaken state legislatures that until recently didn't intend to consider more social spending. In some cases, gun-rights advocates are seeking mental health reforms as an alternative to more gun laws.

Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said many budget-cutting governors are having second thoughts, including whether to reform mental health policies "to further invest in the safety of their citizens."

South Carolina eliminated 600 full-time case workers and closed five treatment centers. That led to an increase in the number of people with mental illness in jail in Columbia — so much that it now exceeds the patient total at the city's public psychiatric hospital.

"We've been unable to maintain those preventative measures to keep people out of jail," said Bill Lindsey, director of South Carolina's National Association on Mental Illness.

During former Gov. Mark Sanford's term, the fiscal pressure was inescapable. The recession cut state revenue by more than $1 billion from 2008 to 2011.

"It wasn't really Sanford's fault," said former state Rep. Dan Cooper, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "There just wasn't enough money to go around."

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