Utah mental health officials seem pleasantly surprised by a report that places Utah among the top 10 states in treatment of the severely mentally ill.

Utah ranks ninth in "Care of the Seriously Mentally Ill," a report released this week by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Public Citizens Health Research Group.The report, a consumers' guide to public services for the seriously mentally ill, aims to answer the question: "If I had a family member with a serious mental illness, in what state would the person be most likely to receive good services?"

"A person could move to Utah and receive good treatment, but not as broad a coverage as in other states," Norman C. Angus, director of the Department of Social Services, said. "We have a range of programs, but are limited by funds in the number of programs we can provide. Those services we provide are very good."

The national report agrees: "If Utah ever decides to spend a little more money on mental health services . . . it is a state which could potentially become one of the best in the nation."

"I'm not surprised that Utah is considered one of the best poor states," Jan Harding, Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said. "I think we are. But I am shocked that other states are worse than us."

The report blames the state's "poor" financial status regarding programs in part on Gov. Norm Bangerter and questions his commitment to improving the programs by modest funding increases.

"When I hear that kind of comment I get pretty defensive because it isn't as if Gov. Bangerter had a whole lot of money to allocate to the programs," Angus said. "Since he took office, we've increased general funds - money going from state revenues to mental health programs - by about 11.3 percent."

Angus said during the past 31/2 years, a funding process has been implemented through which mental health centers across the state now receive about $14 million to $15 million for Title 19 or Medicaid.

Harding blamed the legislative budgeting processes for lack of money for programs. "The social service subcommittee understands the problems, but the leadership of the Legislature is under such stress that our programs are just one more thing vying for the money. Mental health and aging always seem to get cuts. Maybe it's because we can't line up our membership and take them (to the Capitol). But I know one lawmaker said that mental health is looked at (by lawmakers) as a bottomless pit."

The report criticized the Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center scandal, in which top staff members were accused of "corrupt business practices and misuse of public funds" totaling $3.5 million over four years, saying it gave the state "a black eye and a few broken ribs."

"No doubt the Timp Mental has had some effect, or will yet have some impact," Angus said, "but I believe strongly in the integrity of our legislative process - that the Legislature will come forth, look at and fund programs based on their merit. I don't see Timp having a long-range, detrimental effect on mental health services."

Overall, officials are pleased. "Being ninth in the nation isn't all that bad, particularly when you consider that we have moved from 13th two years ago to ninth this year. That shows a fairly positive movement," Angus said.