Police, jails becoming de facto health care providers

Law enforcement officers responding to more calls of individuals in mental crisis
Police, jails becoming de facto health care providers

Mental health care advocates say issues stemming from law enforcement officers responding to individuals in mental crisis are symptomatic of a greater problem.

On multiple occasions in the last few months, law enforcement officers in Madison and Dane County have responded to individuals in mental crisis, and too often those events have ended violently.

Most recently, officers from three jurisdictions searched a field for seven hours for a woman who had been banned in February from the Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute and Clinics for threatening staff. The woman had reportedly told staff that she had a gun and “she knew how to use it.” She returned to the facility early Tuesday morning, exchanged words with staff members and then ran into a nearby field.

It forced the evacuation of 300 employees from the building, and people in nearby buildings were warned of a possible threat and asked to take precautions.

When officers eventually located the woman in the field, she took her own life with a gun.

“It leaves us with kind of a hollow feeling when we can’t help somebody, when we can’t get them the medical help, psychiatric help that they need,” University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Chief Susan Riseling said.

Riseling said law enforcement officers are increasingly being asked to respond to calls of individuals in mental crisis.

“As services are continually cut in our state toward folks with mental illness, the police become the intervention strategy, and we’re not the best intervention strategy,” Riseling said.

Earlier this year, the state of Wisconsin changed policy at the Mendota Mental Health Institute to no longer accept men in mental crisis.

That change resulted in law enforcement agencies dealing with the reality of transporting the individual to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, in Oshkosh. In doing so, because two officers are required to escort the individual on the two-hour drive to Oshkosh, local jails sometimes become an option.

“As a result of cutting services, local services and medical services, the jails have become the place where we are confining people with mental illness, and the jails are just not suited for them,” Riseling said.

“No, it is not appropriate. A much more appropriate response is an expansion of community services,” said Brad Schlough, director of Community Services for Journey Mental Health Center.

Journey Mental Health assists individuals in Dane County in mental crisis. In 2012, it worked with 8,585 individuals. To date this year they have had 8,281 contacts with patients, and there are still 4 1/2 months remaining in the year. They say the number of people needing mental health care is growing, and services have not kept up with need.

“That’s a big part of it. I think certainly we have to have a continuation of services,” Schlough said.

He said with proper care, individuals dealing with a mental illness can recover.

“We believe with the right services in the community, people are going to recover from mental illness. They are going to move ahead, they are going to become productive members of our community, and we see it all the time in our programs,” Schlough said.

Schlough is hopeful the implementation of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Comprehensive Community Services program will assist more people in need.

The Comprehensive Community Services program will provide services to individuals who have needs that are ongoing. Schlough is hoping that ongoing, wraparound treatment will prevent individuals from reaching or reentering mental crisis. He is also hoping the added middle-tier treatment will take pressure off the overall mental health care system and get people off of wait lists.