Al Scovel is on a mission to address a clear need in western South Dakota that has lingered for decades — the lack of a mental health center.
The Rapid City attorney and former state lawmaker wants the Legislature or Gov. Daugaard to dedicate funds to build one “out there,” which is how state government officials sometimes characterize this part of the state, according to Scovel.
Now, as he emphasized in a recent meeting with the Journal editorial board, those who have serious mental health problems must travel to the state mental health hospital in Yankton, which is 365 miles from Rapid City. It is a facility, he said, that is woefully understaffed and lacks resources.
The state has a history of giving "lip service” to mental health needs, said Scovel, whose record of public service includes working for Bill Janklow when he was a governor known for getting things done.
“What kind of people are we?” he asked. “How long are we going to allow this?”
Scovel is not a lone voice on this issue. Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom raised similar concerns in February when Regional Health announced it was curtailing its services for the mentally ill.
At the time, the region’s primary health-care provider said it would “no longer admit behavioral health patients who do not have acute medical needs to the main hospital when the Behavioral Health facility is at capacity.”
Instead, the hospital said, it would turn them over to law enforcement officials who would then have to decide whether to put them in jail or turn them loose while in crisis, which led to the creation of the West River Behavioral Health Alliance.
"This is fundamentally flawed because we’re using a criminal justice response for what should be a medical situation,” Jegeris said at the time.
Thom added: “We need a West River solution. … No singular entity can solve this. It’s bigger than any one of us.”
It is a proposition that Scovel endorses, but he is not waiting for a local official to lead the charge. He has taken it upon himself to find needed support to convince lawmakers and state officials that western South Dakota needs a state-supported mental health center for what he calls “a crisis — it is very, very real.”
He has made presentations and sought the support of the Rapid City Council and Pennington County Commission, which unanimously approved a resolution supporting additional mental health services in this area. He now recruits West River lawmakers on the eve of the legislative session.
Scovel is correct. It is a shame the West River lacks a mental health facility. The public and elected officials should heed his message and demand that one be built “out here.”