If we go back in history, to the era of pioneers like Peter Bryce, Senator Lister Hill, and J. T. Searcy, Alabama was once a world leader in mental health services. But despite our bright past, our current mental health system is in crisis. Alabama has betrayed its own legacy of effective and compassionate mental health treatment by continually underfunding mental health services, relying on jails and prisons to house the severely mentally ill, and passing the state’s responsibility down to communities and local governments.
The most efficient and effective way to improve mental health treatment is through Medicaid expansion, which I talked about extensively in my Healthcare rollout. Nationwide, almost one-third of persons who receive health insurance coverage through Medicaid expansion have a mental disorder, a substance abuse disorder, or both. People who are uninsured have a higher prevalence of mental health conditions than the overall population, and expansion is key to providing broader access to mental health treatment.
Lack of mental health services keeps many school children from learning and increases a wide range of scholastic problems. As part of our Alabama Education Lottery proposal, which we have discussed previously, $25 million will be allocated annually for Community Innovation Grants that can be used by local school systems to improve social services to students, including providing mental health resources. The Alabama Department of Mental Health will be among the state agencies charged with developing onsite delivery models that connect mental health and other services directly to the schools.
As Governor, I will appoint a professional commissioner of mental health who is given free rein to advocate for more funding, more effective treatments, and better facilities. The responsibility to prioritize all state spending falls to the Governor and Legislature, but the Department of Mental Health should be fully free to seek the highest level of mental health funding and services Alabama can provide.
Alabama has consistently decreased or level funded mental health in an era where society is experiencing increasing mental health problems. All of Alabama’s 54 rural counties are classified as mental health care shortage areas. Our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals, but without providing effective treatment. There’s no reason we cannot return to the days of providing comprehensive and effective prevention and treatment for mental illness.
I also would separate out substance abuse programs from under the Department of Mental Health, so that a cabinet level officer would report to the Governor on our opioid crisis and other substance abuse problems, allowing the Department of Mental Health to concentrate on its core mission.
Prisoner mental health is also a major issue that must be addressed in order to make Alabama safer. For too long, politicians in Alabama have focused on meting out harsh punishment through long prison sentences, while ignoring the fact that many prisoners have mental health problems and most of them will return to society one day.
A federal court recently found that the Alabama prison system’s mental-health care is “horrendously inadequate” and in violation of the United States Constitution. Mentally ill convicts are being returned to society ill-prepared for what awaits, and all of society is paying the price.
Under my administration, mental health will be a priority. With your help, I can lead Alabama back to its historical status as a world leader in mental health treatment.