The Mental Health Minute

Articles and news about mental health issues

Mental health testimony shocks Vt. lawmakers

Here, once again, I find an article that shows how intertwined the mental health issues are with the law enforcement issues.  I agree with the Senator’s statement that “We are shifting costs, not cutting them, and in some cases it seems we are making the costs even more severe.”

We, the taxpayers, all need to really scrutinize the way our lawmakers are dealing with the mental health issues.  These are not issues that will just go away or be swept under the carpet.  Unless and until we actually move from a state of denial and into a state of acceptance where we can actually deal with these issues, I don’t see much progress in our future.  That’s just my opinion, true.

Read the article below and then let me know what your opinion is on the subject, won’t you?

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By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau – Published: November 21, 2009

MONTPELIER – Fresh out of prison on an 18-year sentence for attacking a woman with a knife, the Burlington man was under stress and ready to snap again, telling police that he recently looked for a woman to rape and murder.

The unidentified man, who suffers from mental illnesses, wanted to be put in a hospital where he couldn’t harm himself – or anyone else.

But no one would take him.

“I was on the phone with the hospital for 40 minutes and I couldn’t believe what they were telling me,” Burlington Police Chief Michael Scherling told lawmakers on Friday. “I told them, ‘You can’t do this. This will end in tragedy.'”

That was just one of the shocking stories Scherling told the Vermont Legislature’s Mental Health Oversight Committee on Friday morning, as the police chief of the state’s largest city explained how state budget cuts have affected local services.

Scherling said reductions in state mental health services have resulted in an increase in the number of calls – and their severity – that local police departments get dealing with Vermonters suffering from mental illnesses. He added it’s a job that law enforcement is not always best suited for.

“This is not just Burlington,” he said. “I’ve heard from police chiefs across the state.”

He said using law enforcement to deal with people suffering from mental illness is like “using a table saw to fix a refrigerator.” Charging people with a crime who suffer from mental illnesses is a “perversion of the system.”

“What happens is that since we can’t get someone mental health treatment, we charge them a crime,” Scherling said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Michael Hartman, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, said such cases aren’t always clear-cut. Without talking about any specific case raised during the legislative hearing Friday, Hartman said it’s not always clear if a mental illness is the reason someone commits a crime.

He said the state has mobile crisis units who work with police when dealing with a person with mental illness, although he would be reluctant to send a health professional into a situation that could be dangerous.

“It’s important to remember that many, many of the people who suffer from a mental illness – I would say about 90 percent of them – have had no interaction with police within the last year,” Hartman said.

The example of the Burlington man struggling with a desire to rape and murder didn’t end as badly as police feared. Scherling said after the initial chaos – the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury and Burlington’s Fletcher Allen Hospital refused to take the patient – the man now has supervision and a plan to keep him from hurting others.

Scherling said that man was lucid and matter-of-fact in telling police that he was trying to fight his urges. Rehabilitation in prison kept the man from harming anyone for the first three weeks after his release, he said, but stress compounded with his mental illnesses sent him back to his old violent habits.

The police chief has other examples too: In recent months, Burlington police rescued a woman who ran onto the runway of the local airport and a man who tried to attack a neighbor with a machete. Both people had histories of mental illness, he said.

“A lot of people, in my opinion, don’t need to go to Waterbury,” Scherling said. “What they need is a middle ground … some services and supervision that right now just isn’t there.”

Lawmakers were shocked by the stories Friday, and also concerned that state budget cuts have contributed to making a bad situation even worse.

Democratic Sen. Doug Racine of Chittenden, the chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, said it is more expensive to deal with a person suffering from a mental health crisis in the emergency room or the local police department.

“We are shifting costs, not cutting them,” Racine said. “And in some cases it seems we are making the costs even more severe.”

Scherling agreed that it is more costly to have a law enforcement approach to mental illness. He said there are about 20 Burlington residents with mental health problems who they get calls about frequently – and these calls for emergency services cost around $17,000 over a 14-week period per person.

“That’s a low-ball estimate,” he said. “It could be twice that in some cases.”

Hartman acknowledged that it is more expensive to handle a mental health crisis via police or emergency rooms. But the state faces unprecedented budget shortfalls between now and 2012, he said, and it will be a “huge challenge” to find the balance between maintaining necessary services and balancing the revenues with expenses.

“The state has some very difficult decisions to make,” Hartman said.

daniel.barlow@rutlandherald.com

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November 26, 2009 - Posted by | Mental Health | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

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