- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The U.S. Justice Department sued Mississippi on Thursday, saying the state is violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by “unnecessarily and illegally” making mentally ill people go into state-run psychiatric hospitals.

The state has failed to provide community-based services that would enable people with mental illnesses to have meaningful interaction with friends and family and to make decisions about work and daily life, says the suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Jackson. It also says life in an institution leads to stigma, isolation and learned helplessness.

“For far too long, Mississippi has failed people with mental illness, violating their civil rights by confining them in isolating institutions,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “Our lawsuit seeks to end these injustices, and it sends a clear signal that we will continue to fight for the full rights and liberties of Americans with mental illness.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant called the lawsuit “another attempt by the federal government to dictate policy to the states through the courts.”

He said in a statement that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, had been having discussions with the Justice Department about the state’s mental health system for some time.

“The current system of mental health in Mississippi has existed for many years, yet the DOJ has just now decided to take issue with it,” Bryant said. “For this reason, among others, we believe the lawsuit is without merit.”

Mississippi Department of Mental Health spokesman Adam Moore said he can’t comment on the lawsuit but the department runs nine crisis units that try to keep people close to home and help them avoid long-term institutionalization.

Mental health advocates have long pushed for community-based services in a state with a tight budget. Among them is Joy Hogge, executive director of the nonprofit Families as Allies.

“I am hopeful that this lawsuit will at last bring the kinds of services and support that people with mental illnesses need so they, just like the rest of us, can live in the community and be able to have productive and meaningful lives,” Hogge said in an interview Thursday.

The lawsuit says on a randomly chosen day in 2014, more than 55 percent of the 206 adults in the shorter-term units at the Mississippi State Hospital had previously been admitted at least twice, and more than 11 percent had previously been admitted more than 10 times.

“Individuals with persistent needs cycle through the State Hospitals over and over again, to say nothing of admissions to local emergency rooms, private psychiatric hospitals and jails,” the lawsuit says. “Readmissions typically result from insufficient services in the community and inadequate coordination between treating professionals in facilities and those who support the individuals when they are in the community.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center sued Mississippi in 2010, claiming the state illegally sends mentally ill children to institutions instead of caring for them at home, violating the Medicaid Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2011, the Justice Department issued a report accusing Mississippi of widespread violations.

Talks to settle the lawsuit over children’s mental health services stalled early this year, and the Justice Department said in a news release Thursday that it is supporting the 2010 suit and “remains committed to resolving all of the violations the department identified.”

Hood is the only Democrat in statewide office in Mississippi. He called the suit a challenge for the Republican-led Legislature to find money to expand services.

“This lawsuit is a clarion call to all of us in state leadership to consider how we care for the least among us and how we can make it better,” Hood said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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