Treatment of Mentally Ill Should Not Be Police Duty

Article excerpt

Byline: Tonyaa Weathersbee

Now this is insane.

It's not enough that people struggling with mental illness have to risk being stereotyped because of their disability. Now many of them have to commit a crime-- and risk giving narrow-minded folks another reason to shun them -- just to get care for their condition.

Care that, for many of them, can only be found in jail.

That's the situation these days in Northeast Florida -- a predicament that makes me wonder whether the society that tolerates it perhaps needs some therapy of its own.

According to a recent story in the Times-Union, 10 years of cutbacks have left area hospitals with only 237 beds to treat mental health patients. That's half of the beds that were available in 1994.

But the madness doesn't stop there.

Lower-insurance reimbursements, a growing population of uninsured people and a shortage of psychiatrists -- the specialists who are trained to treat and issue prescriptions for extreme disorders like schizophrenia -- are also adding to the problem.

Now, only about 40 to 45 percent of people in Northeast Florida who need to be hospitalized for mental health care receive it. Unless, of course, they are willing to go to the Duval County jail -- one of the biggest providers of mental health care in the area.

And many are.

Yet, I can't say that I'm all that shocked that law enforcement would ultimately shoulder a heavier burden when it comes to people struggling with mental illnesses.

Some conscienciousness about it began in the late 1990s, when Shirley June Ansley, who suffered from schizophrenia, was fatally shot by a police officer during a standoff in Baymeadows, and two other mentally ill persons, Lateef Abdullah and Demetrius Brown, died after being restrained in a chokehold.

At that time, there was much concern about the impact of dwindling mental health care -- care that had been dying by a thousand cuts over the decades -- was having upon communities.

Even then, some 10 percent of the inmates in the Duval jail were believed to have some form of mental illness, and there were worries that too many of them were in jails when they should have been in hospitals.

But it seems those worries haven't materialized into much action anywhere except for the jail. It treats some 15 percent of its inmates for mental illnesses each year.

Gene Costlow, human services program director at the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health of the state Department of Children and Families, told the Times-Union of a woman who threw a brick through the glass plate door of the jail to get arrested -- and to get care for her condition. …