December 5, 2010; Source: New York Times | As community-based treatment and hospital beds for people with serious mental illness are cut in state budgets, police across the country are being called more often to deal with the results. NPQ has been following these issues for a while. See here and here. And find a report detailing mental health in prisons in Texas here [PDF].
The New York Times reports that a sharply increasing proportion of the population in prisons and jails are diagnosed with serious mental illness. What’s more notes the Times, is that when services become less available, police are more often the first line of intervention. This results in additional calls to police departments already often struggling with their own budget cuts. The extra work diverts them from other duties and can result in highly charged and sometimes-dangerous arrest scenes when untreated people have hit a crisis point.
While many police departments are gearing up for handling these calls more effectively through the development of crisis intervention teams, the system has little capacity after an initial arrest to manage escalating situations. The article cites a situation in which a police officer was forced to dangle off the Casco Bay Bridge in Portland, Ore. to prevent a woman’s suicide. She was released from the hospital a few hours later and went back to try again.
Others in this article cite the same type of problem. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has developed a national crisis intervention team. “A lot of people view calling the police as the only way to get loved ones any kind of treatment, because when the police come they have to do something,” said Laura Usher, the intervention team’s coordinator. “But unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily always lead to appropriate treatment . . . States across the country are cutting their mental health budgets, and people who are serviced by state mental health programs are the poorest, and they’re unable to get services any other way.” The community mental health system is broken, she concluded.
Cuts to appropriate mental health treatment are fiscally and morally a terrible choice. This article makes clear that state cuts in this area—already occurring pre-recession in some cases—are only getting worse.—Ruth McCambridge