Thursday, January 8, 2009

Skip Treatment, Go Straight to Jail

Mental health needs must be addressed

By Michael Morris
The Facts

Published January 4, 2009

The unavoidable fact in Brazoria County is a lot of mental health patients are going to wind up in jail instead of a treatment program, which is what they really need.

There’s something terribly wrong with that picture, and it’s going to be up to residents of Brazoria County to change it. This county needs more places where patients on long waiting lists for mental health care can go for treatment. It needs to come up with a way to buy needed medication, rather than pay for keeping a mental health patient in jail.

If the assessment in those first two paragraphs seems familiar, it is because we first wrote it back in August 2003. We printed similar statements in November of that year, then again in February and November 2006.

In all that time, however, mental health services, especially for the indigent, have remained all but nonexistent in Brazoria County. Now, the lifeline those would-be patients needed has been taken away as well.

Brazoria County still has no in-patient services for mental health patients. While those with mental illnesses in the past could be sent to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Hurricane Ike stripped that facility of its in-patient mental health care capabilities.

It is time the state and county finally get serious about the mental health problem, doing something more than pointing out its existence and saying they can’t do anything about it.

Even outpatient services are far short of necessary levels. Lake Jackson therapist Barbara Bernzen, who is helping lead an effort to bring better mental health care to the area, said Brazoria County is at just 10 percent of the national average of mental health professionals per capita. There are resources in Harris County, of course, but those are useful only if a person has the means to get there — and has been diagnosed.

Instead, as was the case when we addressed the subject almost six years ago, most likely the person first confronting someone with a mental health problem will be wearing a badge.

The Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office answered 1,903 calls requiring mental health deputy evaluation in 2007, with 204 cases of people being apprehended or forced into some kind of mental care. While the sheriff’s office makes every effort to properly deal with mental health issues — it now has specially trained deputies available around the clock — their use should be a last resort, not a first.

“By the time they’re arrested, they’re either a threat to themselves or someone else,” said Carie Fletcher, Gulf Coast Community Coalition/Bay Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol coordinator. “If there were a facility, they may be able to access services before then.”

A group of area mental health professionals is stepping up to call greater attention to the need and petition the Legislature to at least restore the region’s previous capacity. We hope, despite the economic downturn possibly cutting into the state budget, the calls for better mental health care do not go unheeded.

It is far more expensive to care for a mentally ill person if they are in a jail cell, and more should be done to prevent that from being the most common course of action in Texas. The persistence of the problem in Brazoria County should be remedied, and we pray it will not take another hurricane to prompt those who should have acted long ago to do so.

This editorial was written by Michael Morris, assistant managing editor of The Facts.

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