editorial

The good news

A deal between state and federal officials could help some mentally ill people.

August 25, 2012 

At last. Thank goodness. Or more properly, thank the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, which in 2010 filed a complaint with the federal government over housing problems for the mentally ill in North Carolina. The efforts came to something this week with the announcement of an agreement between state and federal officials that will require the state to create places to take care of mentally ill folks who have been in adult care homes. There is an eight-year plan, which is reasonable enough. Now it is up to the legislature to appropriate the money to get the job done, some $287 million over that eight years.

There are many others in addition to Disability Rights, of course, who have long worked for humane treatment of the mentally ill, treatment that would go beyond warehousing and try to give these people and their families some hope for improvement. The advocates wanted living circumstances that would encourage progress, move people along in treatment (understanding that not all could be progress at the same pace) in a hopeful and helpful way.

Housing’s only part of the equation, but it’s a big part. And in North Carolina, many mentally ill people were being housed in regular adult care homes, often with large percentages of elderly people. The mix of younger folks with mental illness and the frail elderly wasn’t smooth in many cases. It was sometimes bad for both groups, and it even could be dangerous for the older residents.

The feds had enough and had heard enough excuses from the state about the expense of changes, the cost of moving the mentally ill out of the adult care homes into community house of different types. A federal investigation was harshly critical.

Now, at long last, something has happened.

Of course, this is a fraction of the state’s frustrating but important effort to confront the challenges of getting help for the mentally ill in a way that both the state and the patient can afford. But yes, these are citizens, and the state has an obligation to them and their families to do everything it can to help.

And let us not forget that many of the mentally ill in the state were in effect mistreated thanks to miserably failed mental health reform that began more than 10 years ago. Reform was expensive and unsuccessful, and in addition, the state made plans to close the Dorothea Dix Hospital for mental illness before its time, while the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner struggled to find its footing with administrative and staff problems.

Good grief. It was enough to scare the families of the mentally ill as well as anger them. It’s unfortunate that at the end of the day, it took federal intervention to get something done, but that’s the way it has to be sometimes, and it’s when the government regulators in Washington can really demonstrate their importance. In this case such intervention wasn’t “interference” in the negative sense. For the mentally ill who will be affected, it was a blessing.

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