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Mississippi city rejects mental health facility despite need

Officials in southwest Mississippi have denied a rezoning request for a mental health facility, despite complaints that the area is underserved.

Natchez aldermen on Tuesday unanimously rejected rezoning property to allow a crisis stabilization unit, a small mental hospital meant to keep people from being sent to faraway state hospitals or jail.

Opponents said the facility is inappropriate for a mostly residential neighborhood.

Crisis stabilization services were one of the flash points in a recent trial in which a federal judge ruled Mississippi was violating the rights of mentally ill people by relying too much on state hospitals to confine them. Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten testified in that trial that Natchez and surrounding Adams County have few resources to help mentally ill people, saying he padded a jail cell to hold people. Patten testified that he rarely got help from Southwest Mississippi Mental Health because many of its employees were more than an hour away in McComb.

Southwest Mississippi Mental Health Executive Director Sherlene Vince told The Natchez Democrat that city documents improperly labeled the unit as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

“It is not a drug treatment program or detox unit and we are not able to treat anyone who has criminal charges,” Vince said.

Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith says Natchez needs the unit, but says “there has to be a better place for it.”

“It should not be in a neighborhood,” Smith said.

Lawyer Scott Slover, representing Southwest Mississippi Mental Health, said that because the facility is being funded with grants from the state Department of Mental Health, the local mental health board can’t build or buy a building. The requirement to lease limits its options, Slover said.

“They would have to find someone who owns a piece of property, would invest anywhere from half a million to $750,000 into the property and then would take some sort of lease payment over time to recoup the cost and make a profit,” he said. “That is easier said than done.”

Slover warned that if Natchez couldn’t approve a location, the crisis stabilization unit could also end up in McComb.

At least three other Mississippi cities have settled lawsuits alleging illegal discrimination against people with disabilities in recent years after they barred or tried to close facilities serving people with mental illness.

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Information from: The Natchez Democrat, http://www.natchezdemocrat.com/

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