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Criminalizing the Mentally Ill?
The Great State of Texas is not known for generous support of social service programs. In fact, the state offers such little funding for mental health, law enforcement officers across Texas have performed the duties of psychologists and social workers — roles they have neither the training nor the manpower to bear. Now the Texas Legislature has further withered services under the strain of a strapped state budget, and as a result, police and sheriff’s departments say the number of mental health calls they respond to is snowballing. And thanks to a new $27 billion budget crisis, it may only get worse. Enter crisis mode.
Now it becomes more likely for mentally ill Texans to end up in emergency rooms, having mental breakdowns or being thrown behind bars.
“We’re about to see huge setbacks. I think we’re going to get slaughtered,” said Leon Evans, chief executive of Bexar County Mental Health Care services. “We’ve been developing some tools so people don’t have to go to the hospital and prison. But I think all these programs that are very effective, that help to reclaim lives, are at risk.”
Experts say slashing mental health funding will have a painful and resounding effect across Texas when the mentally ill can’t access the treatment and medication they need to function.
“What’s happening is the criminalization of mental illness,” said Polly Hughes, public policy chair of National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It shifts the responsibility of taking care of mental illness to the counties and officers who are already stretched thin.”
Community services such as clinics, crisis hotlines and outpatient treatment are critical to keeping the mentally ill out of state institutions and jail. The shortage of mental hospital beds means officers often have to drive a mentally ill person hundreds of miles to the next open bed. And if you are old enough to recall, former President Ronald Reagan slashed budgets that closed many mental health hospitals, increasing the number of homeless mentally ill. It’s ironic he would eventually become mentally incapacitated himself.
“What we’re facing in 2011 are law enforcement officers as de facto social workers and jails becoming asylums,” Houston Senior Police Officer Frank Webb said. “Police officers are responding to more mental illness than social workers.”
Jails are packed with mentally ill Texans who most often haven’t committed a violent crime, but cycle endlessly through the system for minor violations, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Texans with a serious mental illness are eight times more likely to be incarcerated in jails than treated in hospitals, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A community health care program costs $12 per day to care for a patient, compared to $137 per day to incarcerate them, the group said.officers.
The Washington-based National Alliance on Mental Illness found that between 2008 and today, 32 states and Washington, D.C., cut mental health services right on the heels of layoffs and home foreclosures that increased demand for services. If you know someone in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).