Guest Commentary

Budget cuts shortchange mental health services

The drawing helps illustrate mental illness among individuals. Often these concerns go untreated.
The drawing helps illustrate mental illness among individuals. Often these concerns go untreated. KRT

Dear U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Kansas City Mayor Sly James: Please help.

Recently I was visiting at Research Psychiatric Hospital in Kansas City. Here are some things I need you to know:

A young woman walked in with two young girls trailing. She was trying to be admitted. And she didn’t have anyone to support her. I wondered what would happen to her children as she filled out the assessment papers.

A young woman was visited by her boyfriend. He broke up with her. She begged. He said she was too “(messed) up.” He sounded exhausted. Her howls of anguish as he tried to leave were nearly the saddest thing I’d heard that day. She was all alone.

A man was admitted, but he was too much for the staff. They sent him to the county jail even though he was seriously ill. A woman was discharged from the hospital but sat in the visiting room begging family members over the phone to come and get her. No one would. She had no place to go. She cried. I went over and put my hand on her shoulder. We both knew she might be headed for the streets — as were several other people I saw discharged.

Please help. People hear that the state has cut the budget for mental health by 35 percent since 2009, but they have no idea what it means. They are thinking they don’t want to pay any more taxes. Or that they don’t want their own pet concern (schools, city services, etc.) shortchanged in the budget wars.

They are not thinking that it means single mothers turning up so desperate for help that they can’t focus on what will happen to their children if they get that help. They are not thinking that it means families have to call hospital after hospital to even find a bed for a sick loved one, and then end up financially devastated by thousands of dollars in uninsured health costs.

They are not thinking that families are so overwhelmed and exhausted emotionally that some let their children go to the streets while other families can’t keep their loved ones off the streets even if they want to. They are not thinking that it means sick people turned out into the streets — still sick and alone.

Please help change the public’s understanding of mental illness. Rather than talking about mental illness only in the wake of some heinous event like a mass shooting, help the public understand that mental illness is a neurobiological, physical illness of the brain like diabetes is an illness of the pancreas.

Please tell the public that less than 4 percent of gun violence is committed by people who are mentally ill, and that fewer than 23 percent of the men who committed mass shootings even had a diagnosis of mental illness. Please tell them that people who are mentally ill deserve the same compassion as cancer patients, not fear.

They deserve the same care as diabetes, not stigma. They deserve better than being turned out of hospitals onto the streets. Then maybe instead of only talking about a “broken system” all the time, we could focus on broken people and how to help them not be alone.

Please help. I know you can. Looking forward to hearing from you. If we care about addressing mental illness the way we say we do, support our elected leaders to make the changes that change lives — real changes that can end these daily human tragedies.

Melvina Johnson Young is a former university lecturer and writer specializing in U.S. history, African-American history, women’s history, and gender and cultural studies.