State recognition of mentally ill is long overdue

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bureaucracies move slowly, but it's heartening when they do the right thing.

In this case, it's too bad it took two years of legal battles to bring the agency around, but the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is doing the right thing today.

The agency called for a moment of silence to honor people buried in cemeteries at the state's three psychiatric hospitals.

The observance was set for 10:10 a.m. today, coinciding with World Mental Health Day.

Nebraska Historical Society records show there are 1,150 people buried at the Hastings Regional Center, 523 at the Norfolk Regional Center and 776 at two cemeteries at the Lincoln Regional Center.

HHS officials note that mental illness was once treated as "something shameful: and many burial sites were marked only with numbers or unmarked stones, and today's observance honored the humanity of those buried at the regional centers.

That was just the point of a request by the Adams County Historical Society for a list of names of those buried in the former psychiatric hospital cemetery in Hastings.

The state refused, saying that federal medical privacy law prohibited the release of the names.

We argued against the stance, noting that federal HIPAA laws -- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act --were often cited improperly to keep the public in the dark.

Nearly two years later, the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed and ordered the names released.

The Adams County Historical Society has posted the names of 957 people on its website -- http://bit.ly/ouyzcz -- but just the names and dates of death, no other identifying information.

The Adams County group made the effort because of repeated calls from those whose relatives were buried in unmarked graves at the Hastings facility between 1889 and 1957.

Answers to their questions, and today's acknowledgement that mental illness is just that, an illness, were long overdue.

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