An Ounce of Prevention

By James Bonneau

The largest mental health and mental retardation (MHMR) health care provider in the state of Texas is not a psychiatric hospital or any other specialized medical facility, but the Harris County Jail. Last week, the San Antonio Express-News also reported that nearly 16% of those incarcerated in the Texas criminal justice system are suffering from some type of mental illness. Here in El Paso, that percentage is much higher. Both the El Paso Times and KFOX reported last week that 41% of the inmates at the county jail suffer from some form of mental illness and that at any given time, more than 100 inmates are suffering from severe mental disorders, including bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

That is why I was particularly troubled to learn that despite seeking funds for a mental health diversion program for inmates in the jail suffering from mental illness, the Commissioners Court also cut $1.5 million in funding for the El Paso MHMR clinic that treats nearly 1,500 El Pasoans. Now although that the County is facing substantial budget deficits and looking for services to slash, the Court should realize that in dealing with mental health issues, we are either going to pay now or pay later.

By closing clinics and reducing services, the Court effectively passes the buck on from the public health system to law enforcement and ensures that our community’s mentally ill will likely end up in either an emergency room or a jail cell. Even before now, it has been abundantly clear that our community regularly relies upon our police officers and sheriff’s deputies to not only be first-responders in a traditional sense, but field psychiatrists, able to successfully navigate and defuse mental health crises. Unfortunately, such an arrangement has and will continue to have potentially fatal consequences for officers, by-standers, and the mental ill. Although I cannot provide specific numbers or statistics, the vast majority of officer-related shooting I can recall in recent memory had a mental illness aspect. The young man that was driving around town wielding BB guns that was shot near Cincinnati Street or the gentleman that was shot when he threw bleach in an officer’s face come to mind immediately.

And if the 82nd Legislature acts in similar fashion as the Court – cutting state funding for MHMR services – the cost and responsibilities of treating the mentally ill will be shifted even more heavily onto local governments and county jails. The Court has to ensure that the county’s MHMR system doesn’t deteriorate to the point that someone who is suffering from mental illness has to either harm themselves or someone else in order to receive treatment. It is less expensive and much safer to manage mental illness before it reaches a tipping point requiring intervention by law enforcement.

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