As late as the 1960′s, Central State Hospital in Milledgeville was the nation’s largest asylum/sanitarium. At peak, the hospital was home to 40,000 patients, many there against their will, in multiple facilities across the 1,800-acre campus in Baldwin County, Georgia. During the 1970s and through the 1990s, the state and federal governments began a wholesale move away from institutionalizing the mentally ill. That is a good thing.
And while Central State Hospital still exists, on a much smaller scale, its mission has changed, yet problems of mental health and mental illness have only grown, almost geometrically. During the recent pandemic, 2,036 Georgians lost their lives due to an overdose of painkillers and other narcotics, fueled by their own addiction and other mental health challenges. Thousands of mentally ill still live in Georgia, though now ‘home’ is most often to be found on the streets, or in county jails and state prisons. And the resources to assist, support, treat and hopefully return to productive lives are not likely to be found among the homeless, and Georgia’s sheriffs and prison wardens are also staffed and ill-equipped to deal with these concerns.
Thankfully, it would appear that mental help IS FINALLY ON THE WAY. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is championing and co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to make significant improvements to mental health and mental illness spending in Georgia, as part of a 74-page House Bill 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act. This legislation incorporates more than 50 recommendations made by the Georgia Behavior Health Reform and Innovation Commission including -
- Requiring private insurers to provide coverage parity - Covering mental health, counseling, and addiction recovery services equal to that of physical health coverage
- Significantly expanding funding for mental health beds - Adding capacity at county mental health clinics and crisis centers across Georgia
- Increasing the number & availability of child psychiatrists - Currently only 8 per 100,000 children
- Additional training for law enforcement and first responders - To identify, treat and refer for services mentally ill or people in crisis during the response to a 911 call
- Restore authority for commitment to community-based organizations - To seek involuntary commitment for individuals needing extensive and ongoing treatment via a Probate Court Judge
- Raising pay and advancing recruitment for mental health staff & professionals - The loss of 3,837 state mental health employees during the past two years meant 185 psychiatric beds could not be filled due to lack of staffing
“There is no issue - and I want to be very clear - there is no issue this session more important to me than this issue. I am tired of telling desperate, hurting families that we have no treatment options available in Georgia. I am tired of looking in the faces of mothers who have lost a child because they saw no hope, and I’m tired of seeing the faces of those whose downward spiral has been fed by substance abuse,” said Speaker Ralston (a bill co-sponsor) at a press conference announcing the filing of HB1013.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has already announced his support for the bill. State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (District 82, Decatur/Druid Hills) is a Democratic co-sponsor, the only House Democrat who chairs a committee, and a longtime advocate for expanding mental health services will be further rallying support on her side of the aisle.
This expansion of Georgia health care services is part of what Speaker Ralston and his GOP Caucus refer to increasingly as Georgia’s ‘culture of life,’ including -
- Preferring adoption over abortion
- Increasing funding to reduce Maternal mortality rates
- Expanding maternity/paternity leave time for state government employees
These significant public health and public safety challenges did not arrive overnight, and they will not be solved in one session or single omnibus bill...but this IS a major step in the right direction, and a tip of the hat and thanks is due to House Speaker David Ralston as well as the bill’s many supporters and co-sponsors. And so, after many decades of darkness, some light and Mental Help is on the way.
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