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South Carolina ranks 47th in the nation in providing resources to combat mental illness. That abysmal situation may be starting to change, but we have a long way to go.

The ranking comes from the latest annual Mental Health America report on The State of Mental Health in America. It is based on the percentage of the state's population — adults and children — who did not receive treatment for a mental illness because of an inability to pay or a lack of services.

The gap in available and affordable mental health care is underscored by the most recent South Carolina draft state health plan. It shows a shortage of 213 psychiatric beds throughout the state.

The main reason for the shortage, according to Mark Binkley, acting director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, is a shortage of doctors and nurses to staff the beds. The department routinely asks the governor and legislature for funds to hire the needed personnel at market rates and is routinely denied.

So the Department of Mental Health is wisely directing its efforts to spreading the availability of primary mental health care throughout the state with assistance from the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the state's Medicaid program. The objective is to treat mental disorders when they first appear, a move that has been shown to reduce the number of cases that eventually require hospitalization.

Binkley has said that thanks to new resources, the department has recently been able to make significant strides in its efforts to increase the crisis services provided by its 16 Mental Health Centers and in community services. This includes mobile crisis teams and community "crisis stabilization units" that require cooperation and local funding from community hospitals and law enforcement agencies.

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The funding for the statewide expansion of mobile crisis services, known as Community Crisis Response and Intervention, was made possible with funds provided by Health and Human Services. The legislature provided funds to help local communities form crisis stabilization units.

The legislature this year also provided an extra $2 million to accelerate the deployment of mental health professionals throughout state public schools. About 60% of the state's schools now have a mental health professional on staff. The aim is to have complete coverage by the end of next year. These mental health workers can diagnose troubled children and help them and their families get care.

And the legislature appropriated $4.4 million for an expansion of the Department of Mental Health's community housing program for patients at high risk of hospitalization. The community housing also provides beds for patients being discharged from long-term hospital care, making it possible to free up beds for more urgent cases.

Nevertheless, as Binkley said, even if the Department of Mental Health is successful in addressing mental health issues early and also finds ways to reduce the length of stay in its psychiatric hospitals, a growing state population will eventually require more psychiatric beds. It is time for the governor and state lawmakers to acknowledge the need for these critical resources and to provide them.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press

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