Mississippi challenges federal expert in mental health trial


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JACKSON, Miss. — A top expert testified Wednesday that his lasting image of Mississippi’s current mental health care system is a room full of apparently overmedicated men, while a community mental health worker herself diagnosed with schizophrenia says she avoids state mental hospitals because she fears losing her freedom.

The U.S. Justice Department seeks to prove in the trial that began Tuesday that Mississippi’s current system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to force the state to provide more mental health services outside of state hospitals.

The state said it’s not breaking federal law and that the Justice Department is overreaching, demanding limitless services that would cost too much.

Melody Worsham said she’s checked into other hospitals six times because of mental health crises, The Meridian Star reported , but has always avoided Mississippi’s four mental hospitals.

“I’m terrified of them,” Worsham said. “I would never want to be (there) and I’ve made efforts in the past to stay out of them.”

Worsham testified she has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and works as a certified peer support specialist for the Mental Health Association of South Mississippi, using her experience to help others in recovery.

“Not everything needs hospitalization. Not everything is an emergency,” Worsham said. “When I go to a hospital, I’m losing all power over myself. And that itself is traumatizing.”

Even on the urban Gulf Coast, Worsham said mobile crisis centers had encouraged her to drive to a hospital or call police rather than respond themselves.

When a peer support specialist at South Mississippi State Hospital in Purvis calls Worsham about a patient’s release, Worsham testified there’s no formal process for establishing continuing care.

“She can’t tell me who that person is or what kind of help they might need,” Worsham said.

A demand for better discharge planning is a key element of the federal case.

Dr. Robert Drake, who led an effort to examine more than 154 patient files, said he recalled seeing a group of men in a group home in Jackson rocking, shaking and drooling.

“And it reminded me of state hospital units that I’d seen in the 1970s,” Drake said. “It makes me sad that situations like that persist in the United States.”

Reeves, hearing the case without a jury, asked for Drake to explain. Drake said, decades ago, people didn’t realize the effects of overmedication and stagnant environments.

“Rocking, shaking and drooling are all symptoms of overmedicating,” Drake said. “We didn’t realize then what we were seeing was mostly the symptoms of bad treatment.”

The state continued to argue the federal government hasn’t explained what Mississippi must do. Lawyer James Shelson suggested Drake’s past writings show there’s no one model for care, reading a passage saying “resources and characteristics of rural communities place different demands on service systems compared to urban communities.”

While Drake acknowledged difficulties with isolation and lack of qualified medical professionals, he said rural areas can provide peaceful settings that ease stress.

“When I moved from Boston to New Hampshire, I spent the first two to three years saying, ‘Where are all the really sick patients?’” Drake said. “Dense, noisy, highly populated areas are really toxic for people with serious mental illnesses and rural areas have a lot of advantages.”

When Shelson pushed about the potential cost of changes, Drake said that was beyond his expertise.

“I’ve helped many states design their systems but I’ve never been the one to deal with the cost or fundraise,” Drake said.

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