For my children: a renewed commitment to mental health

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On Monday, the breaking news from downtown St. Petersburg set my heart racing. The Tampa Bay Times headline of the Kameel Stanley piece after the fact said it all: Ax-wielding man shot by St. Pete police had been institutionalized — and released — seven times.

We have lost something in this country when a man can be institutionalized seven times, released, and still find his way to a firefighter’s ax, using it to chase terrified citizens before being shot dead by police in broad daylight on the streets of a major American city. Others may wish to speak to gun tragedies, the perpetrators who use guns to commit atrocities, and the state of their mental health. The Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, the Aurora theater, a park in Chicago, the Wisconsin Sikh temple, Gabby Giffords in Arizona, Columbine — those and so many more — those tragedies necessarily infuse gun control with mental health issues.

Kenneth Robert Sprankle, the man in St. Petersburg, had an ax, a long history with mental illness, and was seen earlier that day smoking synthetic marijuana.

No one but Sprankle lost their life on Monday. The St. Petersburg police are to be commended for responding quickly to a volatile situation. But beyond life lost in in other tragedies, the costs of poorly treated mental illness in America turns out to be astronomical.

In 2008, just a little over half (58.7 percent) of adults in the United States with a serious mental illness received the treatment they needed, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. The annual societal costs of those serious mental illnesses, much of which go untreated, exceeded $310 billion, including lost wages and health care expenditures — and that was in 2002.

Since the great recession, we have seen the largest cuts in state mental health services since the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963. Because federal and state governments no longer have the capacity to care for the mentally ill, prison has become the de facto housing solution for those who are too sick to care for themselves. Even before the recession, in 2006, 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates suffered with some form of mental illness.

In Florida, we are failing those with serious mental illnesses. The public health system only provides services to about 26 percent of those who live with those illnesses. The percentage of state spending on mental health agency services in 2006 was just over one percent, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Of course, the Affordable Care Act — the very one Republicans are falling over themselves to figure out how to de-fund — offers coverage and expansions for mental health services to 62 million Americans, one of the largest expansions of this type of service in a generation.

The non-profit leader in health research and data, the Kaiser Family Foundation, speaks to this in an April 2011 study:

“The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) has significant implications for financing behavioral health services. Most notably, reform will lead to a substantial expansion of insurance coverage, which could replace out-of-pocket or direct government payment for behavioral health services with insurance coverage to finance costs. Medicaid eligibility will be expanded to everyone with incomes up to 133% of the poverty line, and those with incomes up to 400% of poverty will receive subsidies to purchase coverage through newly-created Health Insurance Exchanges. These expansions will result in new populations accessing behavioral health services through Medicaid and private insurance.”

Synthetic marijuana — the drug Sprankle was alleged to be smoking before finding an ax — is so new, that there is little data to be shared. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the FBI recognize it as a problem. In 2011, the Drug Enforcement Agency utilized an emergency authority to classify it as an illegal drug.

All of this is as awful as it is true, but it is not the reason my heart raced with fear as the news broke of an ax-wielding mad-man in the middle of St. Petersburg. The fear — the raw, unparalleled fear — lay in the knowledge that my children, my babies, were in school almost exactly one mile away from where he was shot by police.

If Sprankle, who was homeless, came out of Williams Park, as Stanley suggested he may have in her article, he was on a southbound trajectory with his ax and a mind full of synthetic drug and illness. He was headed in the direction of my children.

We must rethink our commitment to mental health funding in this state and in this country. It is the right thing to do economically. It is the right thing to do for people with mental illness. It is the right thing to do for my children, and for yours.