Federal attorneys: Mississippi must expand mental services

Published 6:34 am Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Department of Justice says a federal judge should order Mississippi to expand community-based mental health services.

Department attorneys filed documents with an expansion plan as part of the long-running litigation between the federal government and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

The Justice Department wants U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to appoint an external monitor to ensure Mississippi complies with court-ordered remediation.

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“The Proposed Remedial Plan provides for a Court-appointed Monitor both because of the complexity of the issues in this case and because of the State’s decade-long failure to remedy widely acknowledged deficiencies in its adult mental health system,” federal attorneys wrote in the May 21 filing.

The federal government issued a letter in 2011 saying Mississippi had done too little to provide mental health services in places other than mental hospitals. The Justice Department sued the state in 2016. After a 2019 trial, Reeves ruled Mississippi “operates a system that unlawfully discriminates against persons with serious mental illness.”

Federal attorneys say Mississippi relies too much on state-run hospitals instead of letting people receive mental health treatment in their own communities. The Justice Department argues that when patients go to state hospitals, they often remain for long periods and become recurring patients.

“At the Mississippi State Hospital continuing care unit, for example, the average length of stay was around 4.5 years,” the Justice Department plan reads. “Approximately 1,200 people who were admitted to the State Hospitals between 2015 and 2017 stayed longer than two months. During the same period, over 700 adults with serious mental illness experienced two or more State Hospital admissions.”

Reeves had ordered the state and the Justice Department to each submit a remediation plan for mental health services. The state argued in court papers April 30 that it has made sufficient improvements since 2019.

“The Court should therefore not issue sweeping relief that invades the inner, day-to-day workings of State government,” state attorneys wrote.

Federal attorneys said during the trial that mentally ill people were being held in jails because crisis teams didn’t respond. They said people had been forced to live far from their families because mental health services weren’t available in their hometowns. They also said people made repeat trips to Mississippi mental hospitals because there was no effective planning for them to make a transition to community services, and the most intensive kinds of services weren’t being made available.

In early 2020, the judge named an expert with 40 years’ experience as a special master to oversee discussions about improving Mississippi’s system.