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Opinion | Oxford shooting shows Michigan has a behavioral health crisis

There are many lessons to learn from the recent gun violence that led to the death of four Oxford High School students, not only the physical injury to many others, but the trauma and emotional pain it inflicted on the student body, parents, and the greater community. Adult criminal charges have not only been levied against the alleged assailant – a student and a teen himself – but also against his allegedly negligent and enabling parents who were apprised of a threat from school officials and did not act.

Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins is a former state mental health director and state superintendent of schools. (Courtesy photo)

Yet, we have known for nearly two decades that the mental health and juvenile justice system – designed as a safety net in preventing community violence – has been in shambles. State officials are aware of this and failed to act. 

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. The alarms are going off and our leaders are failing to act.   

Ross Jones, investigative reporter for WXYZ in Detroit, has repeatedly documented the lack of appropriate outpatient and inpatient child psychiatric beds available to children diagnosed with severe emotional problems. In emergency rooms across Michigan, the same shameful scene plays out repeatedly, just as it has for years with no action to fix the problem.

Children in need are often stacked like a cord of wood in emergency hospital rooms as staff frantically seek a long-term facility to appropriately meet their desperate needs. 

Finding a psychiatric hospital bed for children and adolescents in need is akin to being like being Mary and Joseph – seeking shelter on a perpetual December 24th. 

Since 2014, Ross Jones and the Channel 7 Action News team in Detroit have been reporting stories of children forced to board in hospital emergency rooms while waiting for a psychiatric bed to accept them, and the problem has only gotten worse. Not to mention the increasing number of children in need whose parents are valiantly attempting to manage at home, feeling they are sitting on a “ticking time bomb” as one mother told me. 

Added to this is the shortage of child psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to treat children in need at schools and in community clinics. These shortages have been exacerbated during the pandemic and many professionals are leaving their jobs due to the high stress, constant demands, long working hours for low pay. 

There is too much “woulda-coulda-shoulda” being kicked around on social media about the missed signals that may have prevented the Oxford tragedy.

Sadly, we have a social safety net system of care for children and adolescents that has been tattered for years, cutting across Republican and Democratic administrations, with no action by the either in addressing the problems – problems not unknown by those in our State Capitol with the responsibility to address them. 

Families and children are crying out for hope and the best we offer them is an emergency room stay and a revolving door short hospital or residential stay with a discharge back home, only to see the cycle begin anew. 

Rather than address these known issues, the Republican legislature, led by Mike Shirkey, Senate Majority Leader, has been attempting to transfer over $3 billion in our tax dollars currently managed by the public mental health system to the private, profit insurance companies as a “fix” to an under-supported and funded system of care. Senate Bills 597 & 598 would privatize all Medicaid mental health services by giving full financial control and oversight decision-making to for-profit insurance companies with the effect of enriching shareholders and profit-driven insurance executives. It will NOT meet the needs of children and families desperate for help. Profitizing public mental health will only make the current problems worse. 

Private, profit-making insurance companies cannot be trusted to put the needs of children with mental health problems first. When I look at my 401(k), I want the companies I invest in to do well. But I don’t want them to do well on the backs of some of the most vulnerable children in our community.

There are countless studies done about the problem of the lack of treatment options for some of Michigan’s most vulnerable and emotionally disturbed children. There are plans and reports gathering dust on shelves in state offices and there is expertise to fix this problem. What is missing is a legislative or gubernatorial champion to fix a broken, dysfunctional, and underfunded system of care and support for children and families in need. 

The expertise and knowledge are there to fix the problem. What is missing is political will. 

One part of the solution is accessible, affordable, community and hospital care for children and families in need. 

There is expertise in state government, hospital systems, nonprofit behavioral health, and juvenile justice agencies ready to act when the political will, funding, and leadership emerges. 

Perhaps the Oxford tragedy will become the needed catalyst for action to improve our behavioral and juvenile justice systems of care. 

I call on Governor Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders to pull the plans that are sitting on the shelves in the Department of Health and Human Services and with the pain of the most recent tragedy fresh in our minds, fix a broken system before more lives are lost and families ruined.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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