An offer police can’t refuse

If you’ve ever tried to hammer a screw into a board then you know there’s a high probability of breaking the screw. Sadly, that’s exactly what the United States has chosen to do with millions of people who have a mental illness. According to recent report in “USA Today,” American jails and prisons are overflowing with the mentally ill. By failing to provide adequate public mental health care, millions of Americans are simply swept into the dust bin of society.

In 2006 the U. S. Department of Justice reported that 1.2 million people in custody had been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness. Given that the entire U. S. correctional population is just over 2 million, this suggests we as a nation have effectively criminalized mental illness.

The DOJ report breaks down the alarming percentages: 64 percent of those in jails, 56 percent of state prison inmates and 45 percent in the federal prison system, have been given a diagnosis of mental illness.

Of course not all mental illnesses are the same. Symptoms range from mild depression to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and violent psychopathy. Each requires its own specific treatment — treatment that most carceral facilities are ill-equipped to deliver.

The problem doesn’t start with the jails. Much of it lies in the fact that local police are put in the unenviable position of having to “do something” when they are confronted with a person acting irrationally or creating a disturbance.

During a recent Congressional hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) summed it best, “Law enforcement did not ask for this additional challenge. It was forced upon them by factors out of their control.”

As recent statistics from National Alliance on Mental Illness confirm, police agencies across the country are feeling huge resource pressure as a result of this crisis. Many agencies report that more than 20 percent of daily calls for service involve people who are emotionally disturbed.

Much of the current problem can be traced back to the 1970s move toward de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. The old way of doing things was broken, if not wholly inhumane. Change was needed. The solution was supposed to be the emergence of community mental health centers. Unfortunately, funding for these centers is always easy for lawmakers to cut.

“USA Today” interviewed Cook County Illinois (Chicago) Sheriff Tom Dart for their story. Dart framed the history of the situation in plain terms, “The only way we could justify shutting down hospitals is to make way for the emergence of new medication or treatment that allowed for sick people to be treated in another way. That didn’t happen. They end up here (the criminal justice system), because we are the only system that can’t say no. When they are charged with crimes, no matter how minor, we have to take them.”

If there is a point in this awful drama that stands out above the rest it is this: Today’s burgeoning mentally ill population draws heavily from military veterans for whom Veterans Administration health care has totally failed. It is a slippery slope. Absent the required care, many veterans cope as best they can. Often this means self-medication with alcohol and other drugs. This begets substance abuse and only heightens their overall instability. This in turn leads to the present epidemic of homelessness among our veterans.

As a 2012 study by the DOJ’s Problem Oriented Police Center observes, veterans who are mentally ill, substance abusing and homeless represent an increasing perfect storm of calamity. Unfortunately, the professionals we’ve assigned to care for them are wearing the wrong kind of uniform.