Lawmakers discuss ways to help mental health crisis in Missouri

Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Nearly one in four adult Missourians suffers from mental illness and that number is expected to rise. State lawmakers are spending hours trying to create more opportunities for help.

In 2020, more than a million Missourians struggled with mental illness, more than 100,000 adults over 2019. A House Subcommittee on Mental Health Policy Research has been listening to concerns about the mental health crisis over a span of four meetings, each lasting four hours, and those in the field say more money and resources are needed.

“We have a tsunami of new diagnosis patients that we are seeing now each and every day as a significant result of the experience of COVID,” Vice President for Behavioral Health at SSM Michelle Schafer said. “We aren’t adequately addressing the needs of this particular population, specifically the chronic mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and the pediatrics.”

Schafer was one of the dozens who testified during the committee’s final meeting Wednesday.

Rep. Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) is the committee’s chairman. He said last year, $2.5 billion, 7%, of the state’s budget went to mental health.

“Of course, money is always an issue, like we don’t have enough psychiatric beds,” Wallingford said. “When I first arrived at the Capitol 11 years ago, I think mental health was taking somewhat of a back seat.”

Compared to last year, the state increased the DMH’s budget by more than $300 million with money going to establish six new crisis centers for mental health and substance use treatment. Of the $2.74 billion budget for DMH in 2022, $11,387,627 will go to the Division of Behavioral Health to serve an additional 2,000 Missourians with severe mental illness or substance use disorder.

He said since then, it’s come to the forefront and needs to be a topic for lawmakers to address. A lot of testimony the committee has heard has to do with the past 18 months and the impact the pandemic has had on mental health resources.

“It’s been like drinking out of a fire hose,” Wallingford said.

“We are in fact suffering just like the rest of the country here pretty significantly in terms of the new diagnoses, the hospital visits, and a significant increase in the suicide rate,” Schafer said.

Over the years, the number of adults in Missouri suffering from a mental illness has increased, according to Missouri’s Division of Behavioral Health. In 2016, 862,000 Missourians struggled with a mental illness. Three years later, in 2019, that number was up to 925,000 and in 2020, it increased again to 1,056,000.

According to the department, mental illness is higher among young adults, 31% compared to adults over 25 with 21%. Here in Missouri, both of those rates are about three percentage points higher than the national rates.

“Right now, mental health seems to fall back on emergency rooms, jails, and prisons,” Wallingford said. “Just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean your mental illness goes away and the emergency room is just to stabilize you.”

Mulitple public administrators also testified to lawmakers Wednesday, including Callaway County Public Administrator Karen Digh Allen.

“The change has been that we have no support in the community, we have no support we can truly rely on,” Digh Allen said. “There’s a lack of residential beds, a number of small mental health hospitals were closed including intermediate care facilities.”

Digh Allen went on to tell committee members about an individual who needed to be in a nursing home but was too dangerous to be in that setting.

“I didn’t feel like he belonged in a nursing home because of the level of danger,” Digh Allen said. “There’s a lack of placement for individuals with severe mental illness who could be violent or aggressive if not on their medication and when they need skilled nursing, there is nowhere for them to go.”

Jackson County Public Administrator John Pruitt Killian said state hospitals are only serving clients who went through the criminal justice system.

“They’ve either been found not guilty by reason of insanity or permanently incompetent to proceed on the criminal charge or they are going through an evaluation process, those are the only folks in the state hospitals right now, so that leaves a pretty big gap,” Pruitt Killian said.

Judy Grainger with UCP Heartland, a facility and resource for mental health said they are struggling to find help and are spending thousands on overtime and signing bonuses.

“We get calls every day of people needing supports and services, they were authorized money from the Department of Mental Health, they feel like hey we can start services, but we like so many other agencies in Missouri just don’t have the staff,” Grainger said.

In the first quarter of this year, she said UCP Heartland has spent $15,000 on overtime due to a shortage of workers and $35,000 on signing bonuses.

“We had highering issues before the pandemic, but the pandemic just amplified it,” Grainger said.

It’s a topic lawmakers want to address next session.

“Missouri isn’t known for paying a very high wage, the states surrounding us have been stealing some of our professionals which bothers me, so I know we need to do something about payroll for those people,” Wallingford said.

Wallingford said 62% of people that need mental health resources in the state are on waiting lists.

This is a first-of-its-kind committee for Missouri. Wallingford said he would like to see it divided up into two committees in the future.

“One for health issues and one for mental health issues because there are a lot of things going on in both areas and there’s not enough time to do them together,” Wallingford said.

Members will submit a report to the General Assembly by the end of the year with hopes, Wallingford said, of some of the issues and policies being resolved during the next session.

Starting July 16, 2022, there will be a national suicide hotline, easy for individuals to remember, 988. It will connect a person to local resources if needed.

If you or someone you know is looking for resources, visit dmh.mo.gov for help.

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