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County sees impact from mental health

By Gina Castro

The Brewton Standard

This is a first in a series

Over the past few years, education and discussion about mental health has increased. Celebrities like Carrie Fisher and Demi Lovato have put a face to mental health, which helped validate the impact of mental health. Despite this growth, the state of Alabama is falling behind when it comes to treating the mentally ill.

Escambia County Probate Judge Doug Agerton said the main issues facing Alabama’s mental health is limited space to house mentally ill patients, limited facility hours, a decreasing budget and little to no education on mental health.

Last year, Escambia County had 133 people committed, or one person is committed for every 285 people. Jefferson County, a county 17 times the size of Escambia, had 240 people committed last year. That means one person is committed for every 2,745 people.

A study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) stated that from 2009 to 2012, Alabama’s Department of Mental Health took a 36 percent budget cut, which is one of the largest budget cuts in state history.

This cut then caused a ripple effect. Searcy Hospital in Mt. Vernon, which provided care for adult psychiatric patients in south Alabama, closed in 2012. Mobile Infirmary, the only hospital in the Mobile area that served inpatient psychiatric care, ended its services in 2018.

This budget cut has also damaged Escambia. Southwest Alabama Mental Health Hospital is the only mental health facility in Escambia County. Its hours are only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it’s closed on weekends. A few years back, the Southwest Mental Health had a person who worked the night shift to help treat the patients who needed treatment outside of regular hours, but due to budget cuts, the facility isn’t able to continue that service, Agerton said.

Now when a mentally ill patient needs to be seen in Escambia County outside of Southwest Mental Hospital’s hours, they could be sent to Crenshaw Community Hospital’s psych ward in Crenshaw County, if there are any of the 20 beds available, or wait in a cell at the county jail.

“This is a major issue in our state,” Agerton said. “You can’t hold a person in jail for more than 24 hours without them committing a crime, and you don’t want to trump up a charge on anybody either. We don’t want to put a mentally ill patient in jail. They don’t need to be in a jail. They need to be in a hospital.”

Mentally ill patients having an episode cannot walk into any hospital because of liability issues. To house mentally ill patients, hospitals have to have some type of liability insurance, Agerton said.

“Our system is not taking care of the needs of our mental people in our state or our county,” Agerton said. “If you go in any hospital in our county right now with an illness, they will either treat you or send you somewhere you can get help. But if you go into a hospital and you’re having a mental episode, they will not even enroll you into the hospital.”

Agerton said this issue can also be because people don’t value a patient who is physically ill at the same level to someone who is mentally ill.

“The people who are concerned about mental health in our state are the people who are personally impacted by it through family or friends, but no one else cares about it because they don’t think it bothers them,” Agerton said. “What they don’t realize is that when we send somebody to go to that hospital for a minimum seven days, they are put on an outpatient basis, and they are in line with you at Walmart. This applies to everyone.”