THE BLOG

Nation 'Yawns' as the Sequester Attacks the Mentally Ill

03/05/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013
  • Art Levine Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly

The country has apparently reacted with a "collective yawn" to the $85 billion across-the-board cuts that began last Friday, the AP proclaims. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, "The sword of Damocles turns out to be made of Styrofoam."

But the sword feels much sharper for families, advocates, and local officials who rely on government funding to treat and care for those with mental illness, according to a new article I've done for The American Prospect. Starting April 1, cuts to the Mental Health Block Grant program alone will deprive over 373,000 seriously mentally ill and seriously emotional disturbed children of services, according to a White House fact sheet. All told, Mental Health America reports at least "1.13 million children and adults" could lose all public mental health support.

The big picture for the crisis: Disoriented, suffering people may end up jailed, or resort to suicide because the wait for treatment is too long. We've already seen the impact of a 10 percent across-the-board cut that was implemented last July by Republican governor Tom Corbett in his fiscal 2012 budget. Three-month waits in Philadelphia to see a psychiatrist in a public clinic have stretched to as long as four months, according to Debbie Plotnick of Mental Health America and other advocates. The city's five mobile-crisis teams -- manned by a nurse and social worker in a mini-van to counsel and evaluate people -- have been cut to just one 24/7 van for the entire city, another for West Philadelphia.

Equally troubling, these sorts of failures anywhere in the country can bring about the worst outcomes everyone fears: suicides, jailings or encounters with the police where the untreated mentally ill end up as victims of violence. It also makes them more vulnerable to the last-resort, highly controversial measure of involuntary commitment.

So what seem like minor cuts from afar can be devastating on the ground.

Even in California, which has worked to expand and protect mental health services through an unprecedented 2004 law taxing millionaires (yes, you read that correctly), local officials are alarmed by the sequester's cuts to federal housing programs barely mentioned in Washington. Already, the Los Angeles County jail is the largest psychiatric facility in the country, with about 4,000 or so mentally ill inmates, a sign of the area's treatment shortfalls. Marvin Southard, the mental health director for Los Angeles County, contends that a valuable program providing "tens of thousands" of mentally ill people and their families with a pathway to permanent "supportive" housing and other resources is likely to be severely undermined. "This could do harm to thousands," he says of the fall-out from cuts in the federal funds his department uses to also address homelessness among the mentally ill.

To learn the full, terrifying story of the sequester's impact on our most vulnerable citizens, see The American Prospect's "The Sequester: A Mental-Health Crisis" online at prospect. org.