The sign outside still says “North Alabama Regional Hospital,” but it’s surrounded by weeds and tall grass. The mental health hospital closed in 2015, and ownership was transferred to the National Guard, which also took over the site of the adjacent Lurleen B. Wallace Developmental Center.

That forlorn sign is a symbol of broken promises in more ways than one.

The most obvious is the fate of the site itself. The hospital property has not become what local leaders envisioned when the Guard took it over.

But the more consequential broken promise is the state of Alabama’s promise to take care of its residents. State lawmakers realize they have fallen short when it comes to looking after some of the state’s more vulnerable people: those dealing with mental health issues. Funding for mental health will be one of the major issues lawmakers take up now that the Legislature has begun its 2020 regular session.

Mental health affects many aspects of state government, from the schools to the prisons. State Superintendent Eric Mackey has said schools are seeing more students with serious mental health conditions.

“We have certainly gotten better at recognizing the need, but from my vantage, I would say the need is increasing,” he said. “There are simply more mental health issues than there were 10 years ago.”

All of this has created a need for more mental health counselors in schools, more training for teachers and others to recognize students who need help, and funding for case managers to offer students in need of long-term assistance.

At the other end of the spectrum, since the closure of facilities like North Alabama Regional, local jails have been taking up the slack, housing prisoners who would be better served by mental health facilities — including those who might not have run afoul of the law if they had more ready access to mental health care.

Two years ago, Morgan County teamed up with the Stepping Up Initiative, a national program to help improve mental health treatment of jail inmates.

At that time, Bill Giguere, development director with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, told Morgan County commissioners that the Stepping Up Initiative would allow the center to hire a case manager to coordinate between the Morgan County Jail, Decatur Morgan Hospital and other county hospitals to help identify and communicate about those who have a mental illness. The idea is to help them with mental health issues so they both get the help they need and don’t end up back in jail.

The Stepping Up Initiative of North Central Alabama will hold a fundraiser Feb. 21 at the Ingalls Harbor Pavilion for its programs. Stepping Up says that those inmates who complete its programs have only a 6% chance of ending up back in the Morgan County Jail.

This is an effort that deserves support, but it may be all for nothing if the state doesn’t properly fund mental health services outside the jail walls.

State House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, has said he expects to have support in the Legislature for increased mental health funding and expanded access to care, especially for people in crisis.

Alabama has been failing those who need mental health care. We can only hope Ledbetter’s assurance doesn’t turn into yet another broken promise.

The Decatur Daily

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