Barbara Shelly

Missouri disregards the needs of the mentally ill

Updated: 2013-06-16T00:03:24Z

By BARBARA SHELLY

The Kansas City Star

Judge John Torrence’s words at a sentencing hearing this week rang as true as any ever uttered in a Jackson County courtroom

“Tragedy doesn’t begin to describe this,” the circuit court judge said while handing down a 12-year prison term to Casey Brezik, the mentally ill man who attacked a community college administrator in 2010.

“Our legislature has been penny-wise and pound-foolish on dealing with community resources for people with mental health problems,” Torrence said.

Amen. And Missouri’s legislature shows few signs of getting any smarter.

The Republican majority this session rejected an expansion of Medicaid eligibility, which would have been paid for by the federal government and greatly broadened the capacity of the state’s mental health system to serve indigent people.

A report released in March by the state Department of Mental Health estimated that about 50,000 people in need of behavioral health care would gain access to health insurance if the state expanded its Medicaid eligibility to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, as called for in the Affordable Care Act.

“Many will be young adults, between the ages of 18 to 30, with developing mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” the report said. “Missouri’s public mental health system does not now serve them well because they are generally uninsured and have no means to pay for their treatment.”

Which brings us back to Brezik.

He was 22 years old on Sept. 14, 2010, when he ambushed Al Dimmit Jr., the dean of instruction at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, and stabbed Dimmit in the neck, thankfully not fatally. The campus was preparing for a visit from Gov. Jay Nixon when the attack occurred.

Brezik had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia four years earlier but never received sustained treatment for his mental illness. He wandered from place to place, getting into trouble. He spent time in jail and prisons. He was acutely paranoid about the government.

The morning of the attack, Brezik was dazed from lack of sleep and consumption of drugs and alcohol.

“It’s just really frustrating to see someone you care about go through this,” Brezik’s father, Raymond Florio, told The Star after his son’s arrest. “Maybe now the help will be forced upon him.”

In fact, doctors and family members said during Brezik’s sentencing that he has made dramatic progress since he has been in custody and receiving treatment. The lucid young man who addressed the court this week bore little resemblance to the incoherent, ranting individual arrested nearly three years ago.

“I did commit a heinous act,” Brezik said. “I have to work on this so it never happens again.”

He will do that in prison, at a much greater cost than what the state would have paid to treat him properly when his symptoms developed.

Other troubled souls are still among us. They roam the meanest streets, burden hospital emergency rooms and cause untold worry and grief for their families.

Early and consistent treatment would do wonders, but Missouri has shown a callous disregard for its mentally ill citizens. The state has nearly 1,500 fewer psychiatric beds than it did 20 years ago, and community health centers struggle annually with state funding that either gets cut or remains flat. Yet instead of addressing such an urgent problem, the priority of Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature is income tax cuts and further reductions in services. Kansas’ funding of mental health treatment is little better than Missouri’s.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish, as the judge said. And utterly soulless, as well.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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