By examining the gaps in Utah's services for the severely mentally ill, members of the State Board of Mental Health hope to devise a three-year plan for an "ideal service system."

Janet Nelson, a member of the state board and chairwoman of the State Mental Health Planning Committee, said that through public hearings, the state hopes to "identify the gaps between what should be, what could be and what is. Then we will look at those gaps: Can we live with them? How do we confront them? At some point, the plan will become an instrument to say we know what is ideal for Utah and where we fall short. This is how much money we need to fill the gap."In 1987, the federal government mandated that each state submit a three-year plan in order to receive federal grant money. Utah receives $1.8 million in federal grants for mental health programs.

The committee, which is comprised of public officials, representatives from the Council of Mental Health Center Directors, advocates, consumers and interfacing agencies, held hearings in four locations throughout the state April 19 to get comment from the public. That information will be sorted and used to form a plan, which will be reviewed in November at further public hearings, before the final draft is sent to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"I'm really excited about this," Nelson said, "because it's an opportunity to prepare something concrete that the Legislature, providers and advocates can look at and say we need exactly this or that."

Needs for the chronically mentally ill vary from region to region in the state. In the southwestern area, for example, Nelson said there is a dire need for crisis in-patient services. "We can put them in jail or the parents can try to keep them and hope nothing happens."

Funding inequities are another problem from area to area. "We've been told to equalize funding, but unfortunately, we must do it by cutting instead of increasing funding. So areas with better services and funding will be cut back, instead of weaker programs improved."

Under the plan, local mental health centers will provide information about all available services to the severely mentally ill person and his family.

"If we find we need more information before the November hearings," Nelson said, "we will certainly ask for it."