One of Michigan’s leading mental health officials warns that the state’s treatment of the mentally ill mostly relies on prisons or jails and this inhumane approach may be on the verge of taking a turn for the worse.

Tom Watkins is stepping down today as director of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA) and his message to Michigangders is that their state’s mental health system has become a place where treatment is often received behind bars and where for-profit insurance companies want to replace a public network of care that has existed for half a century.

“We have to decide if we are really going to allow our jails and our prisons to become the de facto psychiatric facilities, which they have been in this state and across the nation,” Watkins said in a Wednesday interview with Michigan Radio.

As mental health treatment becomes harder to find – or afford – the sick sometimes experience a Psychotic episode or emotionally unhinged outburst that leads to criminal charges. Once they enter the corrections system, the cost of housing and treating them can approach $100,000 a year, according to Watkins.

The closing of the state’s mental health hospitals in the 1990s led to a jumbled, underfunded system that transferred treatment to private hospitals, clinics and treatment centers. That transition is now viewed almost universally as a mistake.

Today, more than 300,000 people in Michigan depend on public mental health care, and now state lawmakers wrestle with whether private insurance companies working through the Medicaid system should take over the entire process. The state’s community mental health departments, established on a county-by-county basis or as regional agencies, could be marginalized and largely eliminated.

Watkins fears that a move toward for-profit management of the system could further ostracize those suffering from mental illness, developmental disabilities or emotional disorders.

“How do you separate your behavioral health, your mental health, your substance abuse (recovery) needs, from your physical health? You’re one body, one soul,” Watkins told Michigan Radio’s Cynthia Canty. “The question is not if, the question is how and when?”

As he departs the DWMHA, Watkins has enjoyed quite a career, serving in the past as the state mental health director and the state superintendent of schools. He is now looking to return to his previous role as a consultant to Michigan businesses interested in establishing global links with companies in China.

Meanwhile, Watkins praises the rare, bipartisan efforts in Lansing to improve the state’s mental health system. Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley serves as leading voice to upgrade services and coverage for children with autism. Democratic lawmakers emphasize the need for a public, transparent network of care. And state House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) recently formed a legislative task force to study ways to overhaul Michigan’s “archaic” mental health system.