Shortchanging mental health a costly and heartless proposition

Imagine for a moment that something inside you is changing.

Your usually coherent thoughts are no longer clear.

Scary ideas begin darting through your mind. Voices start telling you to do things. Bad things.

You can''timagine yourself ever actually acting upon those thoughts. And yet, before now, you couldn't have imagined even having them.

This is not who you are. So, as you feel yourself slipping away, you reach out for help -- only to find that you can't get it.

This may be the frightening new reality in Florida.

For the first time in decades, Orange County's mental-health facility is turning away people who need help -- because lawmakers in Tallahassee are not properly funding this critical need.

Yet, as bad as the problem already is, more cuts may be coming.

The consequences will cost us all … in many, many ways.

To understand Florida's problem, you must also understand this state has shortchanged mental health for years, even when times were flush.

We treat the poor and mentally ill the same way we treat foster children, neglected elderly and most any other afflicted class that doesn't have a lobbyist as influential as Big Oil, Big Law or Big Sugar -- like second-class citizens.

We live in a state run by politicians who would rather spend more money on jail cells than on treatment rooms.

As a result, Florida ranks somewhere around 48th in the country, depending upon the study, when it comes to per-capita funding for mental health.

Nevertheless, officials with the Department of Children and Families have been asked to propose even more cuts, as much as $200 million.

That would mean less money for places such as Lakeside Alternatives, the nonprofit mental-health facility that contracts with the state to care for the poor in Orange County.

Lakeside treats 10,000 people a year in its outpatient medication clinic. And the number is growing at an alarming pace, just as the number of uninsured is growing.

Officials at Lakeside cringe at the idea of turning away needy people. But they have no choice. They began refusing service in February.

The result: People who are desperate for help won''tget it.

There are plenty of reasons why that should be morally appalling. But, since morality isn't exactly Tallahassee's guiding compass, how about we approach this from an economic standpoint?