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The Mental Health Conundrum

It is no secret that there is a mental health problem in the United States. States neither know how to deal with those who experience mental health episodes, nor have the resources to provide the treatment they require.

Unfortunately, the situation has led to a system where “police departments have become the front line of mental health treatment, and jails and prisons are the primary caretakers.” The criminal justice system has become the forum for addressing mental health. Mental health advocates argue that reduced budgets for community mental health programs and state hospitals, paired with the nation’s war on drugs, has effectively criminalized mental illness. There are now more psychologists in jails than in state hospitals.

When a loved one experiences a mental health crisis, often the police are the only ones capable of responding and doing something to help the individual. Yet police departments are neither prepared, nor equipped to deal with the incidents they encounter. Police are often only empowered to forcibly remove someone if they arrest them. Because of the lack of community mental health organizations, or hospitals that can handle the volatility of the situation, that individual often winds up in jail.

national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails was launched this week in a partnership between the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Foundation. The initiative aims to create a model for local communities and governments to handle mental health episodes. The federal Excellence in Mental Health Act, passed in March 2014, will provide $25 million to eight states for two-year pilot “certified community behavioral health clinics,” aimed at increasingly local access to intensive care.

While treatment seems like the obvious answer, many police departments have also accepted their role as the first responders for mental health crises by improving training and response. Many of those who have gone on to commit heinous acts of mass violence against schools and communities had mental health disorders that should have been treated. Many more silently suffer with disorders that have potentially violent symptoms if left untreated. Hopefully, this program is successful and we start coming up with a plan on how to help those who most need it.

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