Hands sticking out of a prison cell.

Sharing – Police Are the First to Respond to Mental Health Crises. They Shouldn’t Be

If you’ve been around this blog for awhile, nether one of these passages from this article will come as a surprise to you:

“Police also don’t have a great track record of de-escalating situations with mentally ill people, who are 16 times more likely to be killed by police officers. One in four people killed by police in 2015 had a serious mental illness, a Washington Post investigation found. And when mental illness intersects with racial prejudices, it’s a sinister combination. “It’s often said that the criminal justice system is the mental health system for Black men,” said Gregg Bloche, a health policy expert and a professor of law at Georgetown University.”

“Research from the Cummings Graduate Institute for Behavioral Health Studies found that from 2005 to 2010, the number of state psychiatric beds decreased by about 14 percent nationwide. Some states, like New Mexico and Minnesota, closed more than 50 percent of their beds; 13 states closed 25 percent or more. There were also $5 billion in state cuts to mental health services from 2009 to 2012, in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. (In contrast, police spending has increased over the past 40 years, and been far more resistant to cuts than mental health programs.)

When mental healthcare options dry up, mentally ill people end up in jail. In 2015, The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy center, compared states’ rates of incarceration to how much mental healthcare access they had. They found that states with less access to mental healthcare have more adults in the criminal justice system. Six out of 10 states with the least access to care have the highest rates of incarceration.”

So, by all means, take some of that money we’ve been using on police militarization and use it to fund mental health options, especially mental health based first-response teams,  but, don’t let this be a repeat of de-institutionalization that we witnessed in to 60’s and 70’s when we decided that many mental health institutions were not good and so we closed them with the promise of more community based services that never appeared.

You can draw a straight line from the closure of mental health institutions to the growth of mental health cases in jails. If you close off an option, people need somewhere to go for treatment. If we remove the police from the responsibility of responding to mental health crisis, and get people out of the police/arrest/jail cycle, we had better make sure they have a place to go. As positive a change as it’ll be to have someone trained in de-escalating a mental health crisis instead of the police responding to a crisis situation, they have to be able to do more than wave goodbye and wait for the next time that person is in crisis. They need a place to refer them, to take them to get help if necessary. Right now, we are woefully lacking in those resources, because of a lack of funds, yes, but also because of a lack of trained staff, mental health workers, and neighbors willing to have one of “those places” local to them. These aren’t going away any time soon.

It’s not just about money. It would be a shame to finally get mental health issues out of the police domain only to provide even less help. Making sure that help is available is going to take a society wide commitment to do more than take some police budget and throw it at mental health.

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