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A glimpse at mental illness

State lawmakers wear virtual-reality goggles for a brief, simulated psychotic episode.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The room began to spin as state Sen. Charles Clary listened to the increasingly menacing questions of the psychiatrist. A rat scurried across the floor. Voices hissed at the Destin Republican.

"Loser."

"You are evil."

A few minutes later a relieved Clary removed a set of virtual-reality goggles. For Clary and other lawmakers who experienced a simulated psychotic episode in the Capitol on Monday, it was all over in minutes. But for people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, only medication can help ward off the voices and visions that can accompany the disease.

Advocates for the mentally ill hoped to use Monday's demonstration to expose lawmakers to the "long, dark nightmare of mental illness" and to warn them that the state's system for helping the mentally ill is underfunded and in crisis.

"We are getting the sense that this is not a high priority," said Faye Barnette, executive director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Florida. "It is unconscionable to leave people in the dark without treatment."

But Barnette said that could soon happen. Faced with federal budget cuts totaling $29-million over the next two years, the state plans to either close one of its mental hospitals or cut 350 of the state's 1,800 mental hospital beds.

That means that about 600 mentally ill people a year who would have been hospitalized will now need to find treatment in the community, according to an estimate by the Department of Children and Families.

"I believe that there are at least three times as many people in need of our services as we are currently serving," said John Bryant, the Department of Children and Families assistant secretary for mental health. "We're in very, very rough shape."

Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed increasing spending on adult community-based mental health care by $14.5-million, which includes money to expand a program he began last year that provides intensive community-based treatment for the severely mentally ill. But state lawmakers have already begun to slash some of that funding to pay for other priorities.

"The governor's budget over the last two years reflects the need to assess and overhaul health and human services in the state of Florida," said Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill hopes to convince lawmakers that even more is needed. The group is calling for $20-million in increased spending on community treatment programs and housing and job assistance for the mentally ill. It also wants lawmakers to spend an additional $20 million to expand a program that provides psychiatric medicine to mentally ill people.

In 1996, the Department of Children and Families estimated it needed $13-million a year to fully fund the Indigent Drug Program. Since that time, drug costs have risen and the number of people in need has grown. But last year, lawmakers funded the program at $5.4-million.

"It is an extremely cost-effective program," said Brian Jacobson, a psychologist who runs the program. "Everybody we save from going back to the hospital is a significant savings to the taxpayer."

Dr. Narendra Patel, the medical director of Henderson Mental Health Center in Fort Lauderdale, said he sees many patients who can't get the help they need to pay for the new drugs.

People like Johnny Limbaugh, a 32-year-old paranoid schizophrenic from Largo.

Medication has helped Limbaugh control his hallucinations, which take the form of a white-robed cult of men who tell him to "die." He has even been able to get a job at a local Texaco gas station. Because he works, Medicaid will no longer pick up his $300-per-month drug tab.

So when he can't get drug samples from his doctors, he goes without.

"For some reason, the government has decided it will pay $10,000 to $20,000 for me to go into the hospital," Limbaugh said, "but they won't pay for me to get the treatment I need to lead a normal life."

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