The shooting at the Regional Medical Center of Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties recently by someone who had a mental health condition drew a lot of attention. Much of it had to do with a desire for increased focus on treating those with mental health conditions. Some had disparaging words toward the health care system in our area.

Depending on the report you read, there are roughly 40-45 million people in the United States who have some type of mental health disorder and 20-25 million with a substance-use disorder. Mental Health America, in its report titled “The State of Mental Health in America 2019,” ranked South Carolina 41st in the nation for the prevalence of adult and youth mental illness and 49th in access to care.

Access to care includes access to insurance, treatment, quality and cost of insurance, access to special education and workforce availability, the report said. The report also highlighted “a serious mental health workforce shortage” across the nation.

Nationally, there is one mental health provider for every 529 individuals, while the ratio in South Carolina is one mental health provider for every 640 individuals. That very statistic speaks to a lack of funding in South Carolina to care for these extremely vulnerable people.

Not meeting the national average in mental health providers, so few inpatient beds and the state’s unwillingness to expand Medicaid are all contributing factors that led to the incident at the local hospital. Unfortunately, as each day passes, we fall back into the same pattern we have had for years -- ignoring the depth of the issue and ignoring the disenfranchised, the troubled and the outcasts. And we'll ignore it until another such incident happens and go through the same cycle.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis those individuals become increasingly sicker, increasingly cast aside and increasingly unimportant. And it takes a toll. A toll on the individual, the family, the staff trying to help, the law enforcement officers and first responders who are called out to help them and the emergency room staff. It's a heavy burden that is more than what anyone should shoulder.

As a society, we don't want to solve the issue. It's inconvenient, it's costly, it's maddening and it disrupts our daily life. Sure, we give lip service to it. We post about it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media that we have to do better. There will be meetings about it and great ideas will come of those.

We are fortunate in our tri-county area to have elected officials who realize the seriousness of this issue and that we have to invest in health care in order to combat the problem. However, our state as a whole does not hold those same values. Sure, speeches will be made in the political halls but there's no political will to be had on the backs of the mentally ill and substance users. "Those people" don't vote. "Those people" don't contribute. "Those people" don't matter.

And as a result, little to no meaningful funding will come and we will fall back into the same routine before our lives were disrupted earlier this month. Out of sight, out of mind is the status quo that we crave.

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Mike Dennis is executive director of the Tri-County Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse serving Orangeburg, Bamberg and Calhoun counties.


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