Florida is the worst state in the Union to be mentally ill.
Neglect of our mentally ill residents has always been appalling. But now Florida has sunk to a new low, ranking dead last among the 50 states in the per capita amount it spends on mental health care.
The Sunshine State has been ranked 49th for many years, but the latest release of the charts shows that Florida has fallen further still. The rankings, put out by the Florida Policy Institute, are based on figures supplied by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
They show that Florida spends $36.05 per capita for the support of its mentally ill residents.
The national average is $125.90 per capita.
In Maine, which boasts some of the best services in the country, $362.75 is spent for every man, woman and child. That’s 10 times the Florida rate.
More worries in Tallahassee
At the same time, rumors have been wafting across Tallahassee that the Legislature might try to cut yet more from the already abysmally small pot of money allocated for mental health care in this year’s state budget.
Now what was merely appalling is setting new low standards.
True, Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed health care budget includes an extra $25 million infusion for mental health care. But that’s only a fraction of the amount it will take to revive a mental health system that’s so weak.
One of the causes for the state’s current mental health funding crisis stems from the state’s reaction to the Great Recession.
During those years, Florida took quick action to reduce a budgetary shortfall by reducing many expenditures, especially on the services side of the budget.
But since then, it’s never taken the steps needed to re-inject funding into services, such as mental health care. And for a system that was already near the bottom in terms of expenditures, that failure to act is reprehensible.
What could this mean for Floridians?
Consequences of inaction
It certainly will mean that residents have even less access to mental health care than they do now. And for anyone who’s tried to secure treatment for a loved one, the idea that it could be even harder to get care must seem preposterous.
We on the editorial board often hear from parents and siblings distraught that they cannot find care for someone.
We also hear from mental health professionals who advise people their only option is to move to another state if they want access to adequate mental health treatment.
The just-released State of Mental Health in America report for 2017, in fact, shows that Florida is one of the 10 lowest states in the nation when ranked on access to mental health care. Forty-third to be precise.
One of the most frustrating issues faced by mental health advocates in Northeast Florida, according to Denise Marzullo, the CEO of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida, is access to both short-term and long-term residential care.
“Our system here just doesn’t have a place for people to go,” Marzullo says. “I think that’s the biggest gap. It’s not going to take legislation to fix that. It’s going to take money.”
But that’s one thing the state seems unwilling to give.
Unintentional consequences of inaction
One of the unexpected consequences of all this may be an increase in prison incarcerations. Nearly across the board, in states where it’s harder to access mental health care, imprisonment rates are higher.
In fact, the six states with the lowest access to care rankings — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and Florida — also have the highest rates of incarceration.
After all, if a person can’t get access to care or residential treatment, what other place is there when something goes drastically wrong?
A case in point is Carl Saucer of Jacksonville, a sexual predator released from prison in 2016 who was re-arrested just last week for making lewd comments to a 3-year-old in a restaurant.
Make no mistake, we do not condone his behavior.
But Saucer’s story is a prime example of what should never happen but does all too frequently in Florida.
When Saucer, who was diagnosed as mentally ill years ago, was released from prison in February, there were no residential facilities here where he could be housed.
So a state employee simply dropped off the 53-year-old man in a wooded area of the city to fend for himself.
Although Saucer finally did get housing, his mental health suffered as he had difficulty gaining access to continuing care. He was Baker Acted numerous times, even physically restrained to a bed in one facility.
And as recently as a week before his arrest, Saucer was actively hallucinating.
Now Saucer is awaiting trial in the Duval jail and will undoubtedly be sent back to prison where taxpayers will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for and house him.
Housing the mentally ill in jail and prison cells is the most expensive option available.
And it’s highly inefficient.
But that’s what Florida does — and legislators are allowing it to occur through their inaction.
It is time to tell legislators to stop sitting on their hands — and to reach deep into their budgetary pockets to adequately fund mental health care.
Because when it comes to funding mental health care in Florida, one word perfectly describes the current attitude of state lawmakers.
That word is “inexcusable.”