T.J. Ray column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Juggling the mentally ill as state’s budget wars misplace priorities

Ringling Brothers Circus trained many people to perform under its Bigtop. One of the classes taught clowns to juggle. The pins they tossed up and down were quite heavy and difficult to manage.

Sometimes disparate objects were used together: soda bottles with milk cartons with oranges. Now a cadre of those graduates are in Jackson, passionately throwing things up in the air.

One of the items tossed up in our State Bigtop is the management of mental health. It appears that the clowns are more concerned with other programs than with citizens who need public help in their distress. Facilities are being closed, programs reduced, waiting lines at remaining facilities stretched beyond measure.

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For some folks with mental problems county jails will be waiting though no law has been broken. Many mental health professionals will soon be out of work—though the salaries of some government employees may even be increased beyond their current obscene levels. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a real investigative news source could ferret out how our leaders plan to deal with mental illness should it strike their family members.

Another item flying around is the building of a civil rights museum. It would do little good for me to say that I’m not opposed to preserving records of great social movements so I won’t say it. The current issue relative to the museum’s development is a shoving match in Jackson as to where the facility will be located. My guess is that the crux of that debate has more to do with the gate returns the museum might generate than anything else.

What is not apparently a part of the debate about the museum is the obvious question: At a time when dollars are short, is it imperative that a civil rights museum be built now?

The previous question might be restated thusly: What is the moral imperative of the State of Mississippi—to spend 30 million dollars on glass cases for documents, computers for accessing records, and television sets to watch footage from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as opposed to using the same funds to keep mental health resources in place?

Hone the question one more degree: is it imperative that the State institutionalize history instead of providing institutions for living citizens with painful needs?

Perhaps each taxpayer should do a self-examination, one that has a single question:

Is it more important to display documents and costumes and old buses or to help Aunt Sheila or my son Billy? And perhaps each legislator should ask when the priority of government to protect the welfare of its citizens was erased.

Don’t forget that often, oh, so often, those Ringling Brothers Circus clowns got their loudest applause by “accidentally” letting a pin hit them on the head. The clowns in this circus are moving toward hurting the audience.

(Tommy Ray is a retired University of Mississippi professor of English who lives in Oxford.)