Florida is spending less on mental health even as demand grows for services among returning veterans. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord.)

Editor’s note: A previous version of this item implied that comments from state Sen. Joe Negron related specifically to cutting mental health funding when they in fact related to more general cuts to state spending.

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Even though Florida was already at the bottom of the list for mental health funding, it seems to have slipped even lower.

The Sunshine State now ranks 50th out of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) in mental health funding. Right now, only Texas spends less than Florida for mental health.

WJHG reports that experts are worried:

More than half the money the state spends on mental health goes to keeping people locked up, not helping them before they need to be institutionalized.

Florida spends an average of forty dollars per person on mental health, while Alabama spends twice that much, and Mississippi three times more. Most Northeast states spend six times per capita more than Florida is spending.

This is a growing problem, especially for our veterans. As wars in Iraq and Afghanistan simmer down, many servicemen and woman are coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder. In a state like Florida, though, many of these vets are coming home to limited services, as well is significant delay in treatment.

If a veteran’s nearest Veterans Health Administration hospital is swamped, other public mental health services are the next resource for them, but in Florida that could be a problem.

According to WJHG, “Mark Alvarez is the commander of VFW post 3308. He believes that as many as 40 percent coming home are feeling the effects of combat”:

“If they’re not in an acute situation or a crisis, they often have to go without care or wait a long time to get it,” said Bob Sharp with the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

With long waits for services or no place to turn, those with problems become homeless, get in trouble, or both, ending up at expensive emergency rooms or state prison.

Advocates have been on the lookout for this since Florida lawmakers have increased austerity in the state.

Losing a grip on mental health problems in the state is not just a disservice to returning military personnel, it can also be a costly problem. The cost of incarcerating people in the state due to mental illness is something that could be combated with an increase in funding for mental health programs.

However, this has not been a priority for  some lawmakers.

Last year, the state Legislature made some cuts to public health funding in the state — even though Gov. Rick Scott had recommend saving many of those programs.

More specifically, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, advocated cuts to so-called soft services, which include mental health and drug-addiction programs, because many of these services address what Negon views as “a lack of willpower, a lack of discipline, a lack of character.” Negron was the chair of appropriations for health and human services in the state Senate.

As Ralph De La Cruz of FCIR pointed out last year, the state was making a bad problem worse:

A 2009 report by the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy found that, of the 325,000 adults with severe and persistent mental illness in Florida, only 42 percent receive state mental services at the current funding level. The situation for Florida children is also poor. Fifty-two percent of children with mental illness receive care in Florida, compared to 60 percent nationally.

“Only four other states had a lower rate of meeting the need for mental health and developmental services among children,” the report noted.

That’s one area in which Scott’s budget proposal may not offer relief. The governor is calling for $278 million in cuts to the Department of Children and Families. While those cuts could result the privatization of three state mental health hospitals — in Gainesville, Chattahoochee and Macclenny — it’s unclear how the cuts will affect other mental health and substance abuse programs.

Facilities such as Lee Mental Health in Lee County and David Lawrence in Collier County — which operate the only Baker Act centers in their respective counties — receive nearly half of their funding from DCF. If that state agency’s budget is cut, those facilities will have to find alternative funding sources.

Sharpe, of the Florida Council for Community and Mental Health, also pointed out that the state is simultaneously looking to reduce the prison population through diversion programs and by moving inmates to halfway houses.

While such cuts may seem fiscally prudent — Florida is third in nation for per-capita spending on corrections — cutting corrections and mental health funding at the same time could be a prescription for social disaster, according to Sharpe.

“You can’t do both,” Sharpe said.

De La Cruz reported last year that Florida ranked 49 out of 51.

Before the cuts were made last year, many local publicly funded health facilities were already having trouble keeping up with demand.