Mental Issues Aren’t Just A Prison Problem

A person suffering from a heart attack shouldn’t be treated at the Chautauqua County Jail.

Why, then, should those with serious mental issues?

Through mid-March, 49.8 percent of the inmates at the county jail in Mayville were reported to have a mental illness. Some are more serious than others, but Sheriff Joe Gerace says the issues include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other depressive and personality disorders. The jail has only one psychiatrist and one forensic mental health case manager – both contracted through The Resource Center. Even then, the only thing those personnel are allowed to do is prescribe medication.

How did we reach this point?

Until the 1970s, it was fairly easy to commit people to institutions and keep them there, regardless of their mental state. Courts correctly ruled the practice violated the patient’s civil rights and began requiring evidence that the person was of imminent danger to themselves or others before they could be committed. There was also a decades-long movement to deinstitionalize patients and treat them in outpatient facilities, reasoning mental health patients would live better lives if they were treated in their own communities rather than in hospitals. Unfortunately, as often happens, the required investment in communities to handle mental health issues properly never happened.

That brings us to county jails. Don’t think for a minute the Chautauqua County Jail is the only jail dealing with a large population of inmates who would likely be better served in a treatment facility. Newspapers across the country are peppered with similar stories. Studies, including a 2006 Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics study, show without question jails are clogged with people who commit crimes in part because of their mental state. Research also shows people with mental illness are overrepresented in the probation and parole systems.

There are bright spots in the status quo. Mental health courts can help and the area has some worthy and well-run outpatient treatment programs. Changes seem necessary in how the system handles inpatient care. The solution likely involves repurposing existing beds in hospitals for mental health or group homes, diversion programs that keep the mentally ill out of jail in the first place and new programs or staff in the jail. While it hasn’t been a large problem locally, we note more must be done for those whose mental issues could cause them to lash out violently.

Fixing these problems in our current cost-cutting environment won’t be easy. Taxpayers expect government to contract, not be adding services. Given the closures of several area businesses and the loss of jobs, it is obvious New York must reduce its burden on taxpayers and businesses. Having those with mental health issues sitting largely untreated in jail, however, is just as unacceptable as our high tax burden.