Mental health services in Georgia are improving, but more needs to be done, speakers said Tuesday at a regional conference in Augusta.
Area professionals discussed the future of services in Georgia, primarily the improvements stemming from a 2010 settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and the state that directed officials to provide more community-based services for the mentally ill.
Frank Berry, the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said that since the settlement, the differences in conditions in state mental hospitals and services provided in communities are “night and day.” Despite progress, however, he said the department still faces challenges in funding and the ability to serve children.
“What I want (legislators) to see is we have an incredible, incredible, high-quality provider network that when given the opportunity to do more, we’ll do more,” Berry said.
Georgia was sued after a series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed dozens of patients died while in the care of state mental hospitals and that community-based services were lacking.
Eric Spencer, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Georgia, said progress has been made but that the state is still struggling with transportation funding for patients, and how to allocate funding for housing.
Parts of the settlement require officials to place no more than 50 percent of qualified patients in congregate public housing with other patients. However, much of Department of Housing and Early Development funding is allocated for building such housing.
The department is also challenged in paying for child and adolescent mental health care.
“The Department of Corrections is the largest provider of child mental health care in the state, and that’s upside down,” Spencer said.
In Augusta, Serenity Behavioral Health Systems is working to make up for the $1.2 million loss of state funding for child and adolescent services that was cut in 2008.
The program now serves about 200 juveniles, 60 of which Serenity does not receive payment for, compared with about 900 in 2010.
Serenity CEO Charles Williamson said it has received a $2 million cut in state funding in the past four years, which has been balanced with reducing the workforce from 400 employees to 238.
While most centers such as Serenity receive about 6 percent of their budgets from county contributions, Augusta-Richmond County contributes 0.1 percent a year, or $7,000, to Serenity. Williamson said the county did provide the property for the center at no cost, but that creates a budget problem when repairs are needed.
“I think you’ve got, since the DOJ settlement, a more concerted effort across the state to meet the needs of the people in behavioral health, but the great void of course that we see is ‘What do we do with kids?’” Williamson said.
Thomas Bornemann, the director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, said that while the state has a shortage of about 422 mental health professionals, progress is being made.
The state has expanded homeless, housing and employment services along with crisis stabilization centers, and it continues to work with legislators about allocating more money for continued programs.
As far as solutions, “there is no silver bullet or one size fits all,” Bornemann said.