America Needs Community Mental Health Care
It’s mental illness awareness week. Here’s to mental health, and to resilience. Very few people with mental illness become the dreaded sniper in the tower, but our idioms and our movies would make you think they often do.
So would our national policies. It is a shame and a pity how often mental health response falls to law enforcement officers, who are ill-prepared to help.
“If someone you love forgot where they were and became terrified, who would you call?” asked Brave New Films in a statement.
“For cash-strapped communities across the country, the first and only option for people with a loved one suffering a mental health crisis is to call 911. Police are frequently then the first to respond, a situation that too often leads to handcuffs and a jail cell.”
And of course handcuffs and a jail cell are shocking to anyone. For a vulnerable person having a mental health crisis, it won’t lead to recovery. It may trigger a bigger meltdown. It can and does lead to police shootings.
Yet even people with severe mental illnesses can have a decent quality of life with the right care and support.
60 Million Americans
About 60 million Americans have some kind of diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. It works out to 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children. They are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, even though they are not in general more violent or more criminal than the rest of us, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Brave New Films has made a documentary series, “OverCriminalized,” about the criminal justice system and its costly, cruel, futile, treatment of people with mental health and substance abuse issues. They offer it to teachers and communities for free screenings. It’s meant to advocate for a, shall I say, saner way of helping mentally ill people. Saner and more affordable. A viable community mental health system would save both dollars and lives.
Congress has been thinking about this, too.
Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act of 2014, H.R. 4574, would establish the White House Office of Mental Health Policy to monitor federal mental health activities and develop a National Strategy for Mental Health, a comprehensive plan to provide services to individuals with mental illness, according to its summary.
That sounds dry, but here is what is actually in it:
It would reauthorize funds through 2019 to cover mental health care for “youth suicide prevention, homeless individuals, and diverting individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system.”
It would fund “comprehensive community mental health services for children with serious emotional disturbances,” and set up a Web-based registry of psychiatric facility beds.
A Scary Teenager
I have friends who adopted a very damaged child, with intellectual disabilities and multiple mental illnesses. Once he became a big strong teenager, he got scary. I remember their distress over calling the police when he was punching holes in the walls and threatening suicide. If a psychiatric bed had been available in their rural community, and if a mental health crisis team could have come and calmed him, it would have been better for everyone.
A Determined Father
He actually got effective care in the end, partly due to his very tenacious father. He grew into a working adult, a person who lives in society, not on the streets, not in prison. The young man pays taxes, rather than living off them. It was a better outcome than his long-suffering parents thought possible.
I wonder how many people might reach that good point if H.R. 4574 is passed? It is in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. It arrived there in July.