March 20, 2018 rss
header twitter link facebook link home link
View Resource Guide and Job Postings

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Michigan is Penny Wise and Pound Foolish with Mental Illness

March 2, 2018

DETROIT – When I was a child growing up in the 1950s and 60s, all the kids “knew” what happened to crazy people. They were taken to the insane asylum or, less elegantly, the “nuthouse.”  Sometimes, adults whispered that adults who didn’t seem to be normal might be taken off to “Eloise,” a large psychiatric hospital in western Wayne County which once housed thousands of patients. 

That doesn’t happen anymore.

Nearly all state mental health facilities were closed down in a wave of deinstitutionalization beginning in the 1960s.  Eloise, which was oddly named for a postmaster’s daughter, closed in 1982.  Governor John Engler closed most of the state’s psychiatric hospitals in the 1990s, sending some patients out on the streets.  Today, by common consent, Michigan doesn’t have nearly enough facilities to take care of psychiatric patients in need of hospitalization. 

“Often these days, when you are trying to find a bed for a person all agree requires hospitalization, you feel like your name is Mary and Joseph and you can’t find a bed anywhere,” said Tom Watkins.  He should know; he just finished four years as president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, and, back in the 1980s, was director of the state mental health department. 

The numbers back that up. Eloise alone once housed as many as 10,000 patients.  According to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, state community hospitals had 3,041 beds for adults and 729 for children and adolescents in 1993.  You might think that after so many mental hospitals were closed, local hospitals would have stepped up, but exactly the opposite happened. Last year, the number had dwindled to 2,197 adult beds and a mere 276 for younger people – statewide.

The result is that too many patients who need to be hospitalized are repeatedly turned away, so they flood emergency rooms and eventually do something that lands them in prison.  Severely mentally ill prisoners are, in fact, one of the most rapidly growing parts of Michigan’s prison population, and are the most expensive, according to State Court Administrator Milton Mack, a former chief probate judge whom has long been concerned with the issue of prisons and the mentally ill.

Now, it is important to note that nobody is arguing in favor of again building enormous psychiatric hospitals to house thousands of patients, like Eloise or the former Northern Michigan Asylum, later the Traverse City State Hospital, which closed in 1989.  “There were very good reasons to get rid of most of our state hospitals,” said Gerald Goffin, who spent a life working for mental health agencies.  A now-retired mid-Michigan community health supervisor, Goffin, who once worked at Eloise, said “these hospitals were outmoded, largely ineffective and often inhumane.” 

He believes mental illness can be much more effectively treated on a community basis, and most other mental health professionals agree.  But there is one problem; they aren’t adequately funded.  “The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 created a financial incentive for states to close state-funded mental hospitals, while promising to fund community-based outpatient treatment and community mental health centers to replace the services provided by hospitals” Milton Mack wrote in a major report on decriminalizing mental illness, a cause of his for decades.

However, “the community health centers that were to be the backbone of the promised community treatment system failed to materialize,” mostly because the funds were never appropriated. Combine that with rulings making it harder to intervene when someone has mental health issues, and,  Mack noted, we’ve created a system where we “use jails and prisons as the de facto mental health system,” in Michigan and many other states.  Recognizing this, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did a seven-month study before producing a report February 13th.  Among other recommendations, it called for expanding the number of psychiatric beds statewide, and building a new 50-bed psychiatric hospital near the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. 

When it comes to mental health needs, Northern Michigan is indeed the least well served part of the state. Chris Campbell, a legal aid lawyer based in Traverse City, said “I have a lot of clients who are also clients of the local community mental health organization, or need to be.” But over the years, he’s seen services shrink.  Closing mental hospitals and letting people live in the community is great, he said – if we “provide supportive services to make that successful.”  But we don’t, he noted.  “We’ve honored the first because it’s cheaper and ignored the second because that’s cheaper, too. Let’s face it – there are no lobbyists for crazy people,” Campbell said.

But while not treating the severely mentally ill may save money in the short run, in the long run, it can be devastating – especially in a society where everyone has access to high-powered guns.  The Michigan Health and Human Services report made it clear that we could drastically improve mental health care, if we are willing to spend reasonable amounts of money.  Michigan has a legislature, however, that has been unwilling to properly fix the roads and which is instead obsessed with cutting taxes. 

Better mental health care is clearly needed.  Politically, however, that may not be easy to achieve.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 1, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Elmer Cerano // Mar 2, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Right on the point.

    While the State of Michigan under funds what could be;
    – a coordinated reduction of stigmas associated with Mental Illness

    – assure QUALITY mental health care is appropriate, available, accessible, affordable and promptly delivered when a person wants/needs mental health care.

    Expensive and Complex?

    You bet,,,,,,,but the State of Michigan wants to sell the public mental health system to the for-profit insurance industry, rather than step up to their responsibility.

    The State can not “privatize” or “profit-ize” its responsibility to Michigan’s citizens who need quality Mental Health Care.

  • 2 Jeanette // Mar 3, 2018 at 7:37 am

    As a wife of a mentally ill man, I say thank you for this article. Michigan legislature doesn’t understand that the brain is an organ that can have abnormalities just like the heart, pancreas, lungs,etc. Navigating the system is a horrible experience even for a college educated, non-mentally ill person like myself. It’s no wonder so many mentally ill are in prison or on the streets…. currently they have no chance without someone advocating for them.

  • 3 Marianne Grano // Mar 5, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Thank you for this article. I would like to add, as a pastor who works with people in the shelter system, that people living with mental illness who are not imprisoned are often caught in this system. I would say from my work that the majority of people living with homelessness face some kind of mental illness, from garden variety depression to serious mental illnesses. Churches, synagogues, and nonprofits are picking up the slack by providing housing and food, but we are unable to provide the treatment and help that these people really need. Rather than help, the government even gets in the way sometimes as we face difficulty complying with food service regulations (it costs many thousands of dollars to update a church kitchen to comply with food service industry regulations, and we don’t have that kind of money or manpower). It is so frustrating to be unable to get people the help that they need. I wish this was something at the forefront of our political agenda, instead of the back burner, because these people are invisible in our system.

Leave a Comment:

Be sure to put in the security words and hit SUBMIT


(does not appear on post) * Required



© 2007-2011 All rights reserved. Site design by Kimberly Hopkins, khopdesign, llc.