AG’s task force tackles mental health

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Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at a National Alliance on Mental Health Mississippi annual conference in May.

After years of asking the Legislature to increase funds for the Department of Mental Health, Mississippi’s attorney general is saying it’s time to change the conversation on mental health in the state.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jim Hood convened the state’s first task force on mental health. The meeting brought together 50 leaders in state law enforcement, healthcare and policy. Their goal he said was to generate new approaches to mental health in the state — and not, he insists, to ask for more money.

“I told them, I don’t want this to be about funding because I’ve fussed enough about that,” Hood said. “But it’s gotten to where we’ve got to make this a more efficient system to try to help people that have a mental health issue. They deserve a better system that they can more easily use.”

Right now, the system that Mississippians who struggle with addiction and mental health issues have is Byzantine, according to many in the field. Following a series of budget cuts, the Department of Mental announced in April a workforce reduction of nearly 650 jobs, the largest single-year reduction in state history, according to the State Personnel Board. And the unpredictability of these cuts has led to haphazard changes within the agency and how it works with its partners.

“You keep saying you’ve got to cut the fat, cut the fat. Well, eventually there’s no fat left to cut,” said Dr. Charles Carlisle, director of East Mississippi State Hospital, in an interview in July. “And as the cuts get bigger and they happen more often, it makes it harder to plan for them.”

As attorney general, Hood is also defending the state in a 2016 complaint filed by the Justice Department. That complaint alleges that Mississippi’s Department of Mental Health violates patients’ rights by sequestering too many of them in antiquated state hospitals.

In response, the Department of Mental Health has worked steadily to shift many patients from hospitals to community-based care. But making that shift work, Hood says, requires intricate coordination between the Department of Mental Health, community mental health centers and law enforcement agencies.

Certain strides have been made. Some law enforcement agencies have undergone mental health de-escalation training. But the effort has been patchwork across the state, something Hood says he hopes can be solved by getting these different agencies in the room together.

“It’s the first meeting I’ve seen where law enforcement is agreeing with mental health professionals, and that’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to get more of,” Hood said.

Melody Winston, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services, echoed Hood’s hope that coordination between agencies would lead to better care for patients.

“At DMH, we believe that increasing access to treatment, implementing evidence-based prevention strategies and providing recovery support services as related to substance use disorders should be a state wide effort. A convergence of state resources supporting these efforts is necessary to address this growing problem in our state,” Winston said.

Use of task forces to tackle important issues isn’t new for Mississippi. In late 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant convened an Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force to battle what he said was “the scourge of drug abuse and addiction” in the state. In August, the task force released its first set of recommendations.

While task forces themselves are relatively cheap — membership on both the opioid and mental health task forces is entirely voluntary — the suggestions they generate often are not. The 41 suggestions from the opioid task force ranged from changing the rules on opioid prescriptions to funding six new positions within the state crime lab.

So while Hood has insisted that his task force is not about money, he said he knows that effective change will ultimately require some financial commitment from the state.

“You just can’t get around the funding. Everyone split up into subcommittees — and all these different groups met and each one came back and said, ‘this is something we want to do but we’ve still got to have funding,'” Hood said.

“What we’re trying to do is help the money follow the patient. And if we can take this institutional stuff and make that more efficient, the funding will flow to the medical providers.”