Editorial: Blanket solutions won’t work for Minnesota’s mental health system

Daily Editorial Board

Recently, a report by the Star Tribune presented a challenging dilemma. Over the past six years, taxpayers have funded $92 million in housing for patients that no longer required mental health treatment at a state hospital. These patients did not have any place to transition back into society after their initial treatment. The Department of Human Services records that these patients cost the government $1,300 each day. 

This finding shows dysfunction in our mental health system. Over the years, glaring inefficiencies have arisen within the the system. Past inspections of our current system has found that not only have a lack of funds been apparent, but the way we process psychiatric patients has been slow and somewhat unsuccessful at times. Although pouring more money into mental health programs seemed to be the solution, the current program being wildly inefficient is clearly a larger problem that needs to be addressed.

Over the past two years, Minnesota counties have paid more than $37 million on the unnecessary treatment costs. At first, this number is alarming. However, it is more concerning because the majority of that money gets flushed into the state’s general fund. The general fund pays for many other state expenditures and, thus, most of the money being wasted is not even being wasted on mental health issues.

Minnesota’s options for many mental health patients are bleak. Finding a home for patients has been difficult and they have often ended up out of state because of Minnesota’s lack of space. Fargo, North Dakota has often been a landing place for patients and processing has been problematic. Patients often spend extended stays in minimal white rooms and that is even if they are found a place to stay before the 72-hour hold expires. 

It’s important that this discussion not be transformed into one that seeks only to increase or decrease funding for mental health resources without a careful examination considering the nuance of what specifically is being funded. The legislature should work to defund programs that are highly inefficient, while expanding funding in programs that effectively help patients. There is substantial evidence that several policies, if implemented correctly, would help alleviate the burden off of currently overused mental health institutions. First, creating and supporting community psychiatry efforts will remove the burden on hospitals to treat mental health problems. Currently, many hospitals are used for emergency mental health care after a crisis has occurred, but few communities encourage ongoing support for patients. Encouraging psychiatrists to work within the community would greatly alleviate this pressure. Furthermore, federal and state programs for supportive housing and crisis lines, like the one the Department of Health considered defunding earlier this year, have also shown to have efficacy for patients with mental illnesses. 

Dialogues surrounding the treatment of mental illnesses must continue, and should never be condensed to defunding or increasing funding as a whole. Many policy proposals at the state and federal levels homogenize policies that are widely diverse. When considering underfunding budgets of entire departments and offices dedicated improving state-wide mental health, we undercut the complexity and nuance required to fix our broken mental health system. We urge our legislators to thoroughly examine the deficiencies in our mental health system, and specifically take note of whether the funding that is being provided is utilized for the appropriate reason and is having the appropriate impact. While this rigorous review will be challenging, it is absolutely necessary to have a discernible impact on mental health accessibility.