Perdue: Mental health pact a big first step

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Tuesday that with its recent mental health agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Georgia is ”not crossing the finish line.’’

Instead, “we are beginning a journey’’ toward better services for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems, he said.

Perdue admitted the state made mistakes in addressing problems of people with disabilities. He spoke to a Carter Center audience of mental health officials, consumer advocates and stakeholders celebrating the October settlement with the Justice Department. The consumer advocacy community had been critical of Perdue’s past response to shortcomings in the state system.

The agreement with the Justice Department is considered a groundbreaking game plan to improve the state’s mental health system. Georgia agreed to specific targets – and to spend $77 million – for creating housing aid and community treatment for people with disabilities, who in the past have often cycled in and out of the state’s mental hospitals. The state and DOJ have a separate agreement to improve the hospitals.

The Justice Department began investigating the state-run psychiatric hospitals in 2007 after a series of stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented widespread problems in those facilities.

Perdue admitted to the Carter Center audience that problems in the mental health system ‘’did not receive the attention’’ they deserved for a period of time. He acknowledged ‘’some mistakes’’ by the state, and said some ‘’Band-Aid’’ solutions proved less than satisfactory.

A turning point, the governor said, came last year with the establishment of a new state agency, Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, focusing on services for people with disabilities.

Thom Bornemann, director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program, agreed that the creation of a new agency for mental health ‘’did begin the change.’’

Bornemann said that during the months-long negotiations involving state officials, mental health stakeholders and the Justice Department, ‘’everybody stayed on board. Eventually we got there.’’

Perdue described the pre-settlement discussions as ‘’a turbulent courtship’’ that finally resulted in a marriage. After his address, he told reporters he was glad to have had the opportunity to show mental health stakeholders ‘’what my heart has been all along.’’

Perdue also said Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and Georgia House and Senate leaders supported the mental health agreement. If Georgia succeeds in transforming its mental health system, Perdue said, it could serve as a model for other states.