Life support: The sick state of Idaho's mental health

Life support: The sick state of Idaho's mental health »Play Video
BOISE, Idaho - Although money for every state was tight this legislative session, one-third of them actually put more toward mental health.

But Idaho was not one of them. And with the latest round of cuts, Idaho is now at the very bottom of the list.

"I was about in eighth grade when I got depressed and kind of blew it off," says 22-year-old Lindsey Altorfer. "When I was a sophomore in high school I would cry myself to sleep and have panic attacks, and I thought something was wrong, and I kept bearing it and saying I'm fine, until I eventually had a breakdown."

For Altorfer, that breakdown included two hospital stays after suicide attempts.

Finally, as a high school senior at Capital High School in Boise, Altorfer was diagnosed as bi-polar with attention deficit disorder. She now takes two anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer.

These days, she volunteers her time telling her story to other young people in the Treasure Valley, along with fellow Capital grad Emily Fisher. Fisher, 20, was diagnosed with depression, and anxiety disorder. Both say recognizing the problem, and treating it with counseling and medication is the key.

"I think the important thing to remember is that it's so easy to get out of control when you're off of it, and for me, I wouldn't see it coming until it was too late to fix it," says Fisher.

Paula Campbell, vice president of the Boise chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has her own story. Seven years ago, her son Jason was a senior at Eagle High School. Over the course of one week, he had a rapid mental breakdown, which ended with a three week stay in the intensive care unit of a state mental hospital.

Her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. And she had no idea how to handle it.

"It was devastating to our family," says Campbell. "I had no knowledge of anyone with mental illness."

For the past seven years, Jason has been stable with the help of a psychiatrist, and medication. But recently Paula was told Jason was getting cut off by Medicaid in Idaho.

For the past month, Campbell has been trying to find out why. She still hasn't gotten a firm answer, but the latest round of cuts by the Idaho Legislature trimmed more than $5 million from the mental health budget.

Campbell believes cutting the funding now is a short term solution to a long term problem.

"The people aren't going to get better on their own," says Campbell. "If they don't have the right medication or the right support they aren't going to get better."

When it comes to mental health, Idaho is last on the list when it comes to spending. 50th out of 50 states. Idaho's mental health budget is $41 million. Compare that to Wyoming, the smallest state in terms of population. They're spending $102 million. That equals about $200 per resident to Idaho's $30.

Representative Carlos Bilbao is vice chairman of the Idaho Medicaid Committee, which was separated from the Health and Welfare Committee this legislative session. He says, even though he's an advocate for those suffering from mental illnesses, Idaho can't spend money it doesn't have.

KBOI 2News wanted to know how other states managed to spend more than Idaho.

"It's because if you take a look at their budget and income it exceeds Idaho," said Bilbao.

But as KBOI 2News discovered, that's not exactly true. Our investigation uncovered a look at current state tax-collections across the country. Of the eight states that took in less revenue last year, all of them spent more on mental health than Idaho.

"I don't care what these numbers say," said Bilbao. "If you take a look at the state of California, with all the wealth that they have, and the social service programs they put out, that's why they're bankrupt."

Boise psychiatrist Dr. Charlie Novak says it's not just a lack of funding in Idaho. He says the same money we have could be better spent.

"We are a state that really takes care of people only when they get quite ill," says Novak. "What little we have we spend in the opposite of the more advanced states that get more bang for their buck."

Novak says progressive states spend more at local and regional community clinics, and less at state hospitals and state prisons.

"People show up in emergency rooms, hospitals, jails and prison and that's where they get treatment," says Novak. "They get on medicines often when they've been six months to a year down the line after they've been off their medicines and have gotten so psychotic or so ill that they have done something that got them in trouble with the law, or landed them in the emergency room, the most common thing being a suicide attempt, or self destructive behavior of some kind."

And that destructive behavior has hit home before. In 2007, Boise's John Delling went on a crime spree spanning more than 6,000 miles. When it was over, two former classmates were dead, and a third person was injured. Delling, who has since been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, is now serving two fixed life sentences in prison.

Although Paula Campbell is worried what could happen to her son if he's cut off from state aid, she's not worried he'd become violent.

"Most people with mental illness will tend to isolate themselves," says Campbell. "That's where I know things aren't going well. When he's not calling, or not leaving his little apartment."

Although only a small percentage of people with severe mental illnesses commit violent crimes, that number can go up when left untreated.

Dr. Novak says there are "people right here in Idaho who are psychotic, who are not treated, who are plotting and planning things that luckily, 99 percent or 98 percent of the time they don't act on."

But Novak adds, "If you don't treat people with mental illness, somebody is going to do something at some point in time."

A few years ago, Novak was on Governor Butch Otter's task force for mental health. Along with other experts, Novak made recommendations for changes on how the state funds and treats mental health. Novak says most of the recommendations were never put into place.

"It's not that we don't know there are other ways to do things," says Novak. "But we are Idaho and we want to do things the way we want to do them, and we'll blaze our own trail."

Representative Bilbao says one option Idaho is exploring to stretch overall health care money further is to partner with a private company to manage Medicaid. Bilbao says talks on that could happen by January, 2012.