Wednesday, April 5, 2006

A start, but Idaho needs expanded mental health programs

Big things can happen when people with a vision and a willingness to take a stand take small steps.

Such can be the future for Idaho's mental health and chemical detoxification programs, if the state Legislature's $2 million grant for brick-and-mortar facilities is followed in years to come with more healthy investments that equal the need.

One encouraging sign that more is to come was the lopsided approval by lawmakers -- unanimous in the Senate, 59-6 in the House. This suggests a strong, bipartisan sentiment for programs that will go a long way toward coping with mental health issues facing the public.

We underline the word "public." Idahoans bedeviled by mental illness or who've recklessly thrown themselves into self-destructive chemical dependence cannot be cast aside as personal tragedies unworthy of public attention.

As a practical matter as well as moral responsibility, mental illness and drug addiction are costly public matters. Most people engulfed in these wretched conditions sooner or later become wards of state programs -- medical treatment, housing, criminal trial and incarceration or probation.

They add burdens to the courts system, to indigent medical costs and, in some cases, pose threats to others in the community. Ask any official in the criminal justice system -- police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections -- about the growing extent of methamphetamine users and their eyeballs roll with exasperation and frustration.

The public long ago thankfully abandoned mere warehousing of the mentally ill and the indifferent long-term incarceration of drug addicts.

Public policy now wisely aims to rehabilitate victims of these conditions and make them useful, productive members of the community -- not aimless refugees from society who slip in and out of public institutions with no hope of cure.

Weighed against the public costs already borne by public agencies -- and therefore by taxpayers -- the state Legislature's $2 million funding housing facilities and detox centers is modest, indeed.

Although no state, no community is immune to mental illness issues and drug addiction, Idaho, as an attractive, growing state that lures migrants from elsewhere, is especially vulnerable.

The trick now is for the Legislature to return with more wise appropriations that represent sound, relatively inexpensive investments in programs and facilities that will get Idaho ahead of the problem and avoid crises that demand more costly schemes.

As the debate this year on growing homeowner tax burdens revealed, legislators have no lack of choices in tax loopholes that can be closed to properly fund the demands of public programs.

Like so many worthwhile programs, mental health and chemical detox deserve serious funding and not become another victim of revenue shortfalls that lawmakers could easily make up with even-handed taxing policies.

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