Decide nears determination on way forward for state psychological well being system

JACKSON, miss. (AP) – When Michael Hogan was appointed by a federal judge to help devise a plan for the future of the contested Mississippi mental health system, he planned to personally visit the community’s mental health centers to see the services of the state Action. He hoped to speak to patients and staff – perspectives, which he said, were vital in guiding the mental health department’s path.

That was in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hogan, a mental health care veteran with 40 years of experience working across the country, told a federal court Monday that his ability to work on-site had been severely limited in the past year and a half.

“I don’t know anything about the situation on site, which worries me a little,” he said.

Speaking at a hearing in the United States District Court in Jackson, Hogan said he believed the state had made progress in providing community-based programs for people with mental illness.

However, he repeatedly expressed concern about a lack of data and analysis to demonstrate the overall effectiveness of the community’s mental health system, particularly in terms of preventing hospitalization. He said there were few metrics showing the success of government programs and said more needed to be done to solicit input from community members.

US District Judge Carlton Reeves is expected to rule on a recovery plan for the Mississippi State Department of Mental Health in the near future. On Monday, he heard from Hogan and attorneys representing the state of Mississippi and the US Department of Justice, which successfully sued the state two years ago when Reeves ruled Mississippi was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Hogan and lawyers representing the federal government have argued that an independent “monitor” should be appointed to monitor the state’s progress in complying with the ADA.

Hogan said the position would be “the eyes and ears of the court,” acting like an arbitrator, an unbiased person making sure that the rules are enforced. The state stubbornly defies a monitor, saying the department has made changes and the position is not required.

Litigation has been going on for years over the way Mississippi cares for people with mental illness. The federal government released a letter in 2011 saying Mississippi had done too little to provide mental health services outside of mental hospitals. The Justice Department sued the state in 2016.

During the 2019 trial, federal prosecutors said that mentally ill people were being held in prisons because crisis teams did not respond. They said people were forced to live far from their families because there were no mental health services in their hometowns. They also said that people repeatedly traveled to Mississippi mental hospitals because there was no effective planning for the transition to community services and the most intense types of services were not provided.

Federal prosecutors said Monday that they believe Mississippi is still violating the ADA and that they haven’t seen any other evidence.

James Shelson, an attorney who represents the state, said Mississippi has set up mobile crisis teams, crisis stabilization units (facilities that provide intensive short-term mental health care for people with acute psychiatric crises), assertive community care programs (PACT), assisted living, peer -Support services and support staff.

“We heard your honor two years ago, we didn’t sit around doing nothing,” he told Judge Reeves.

Deena Fox, a trial attorney in the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said these services needed to be expanded and metrics in place to make sure they were working. For example, the state should require professionals to respond to a person in crisis within an hour of receiving a call in an urban area and within two hours in a rural area.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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