By some estimates, one in four Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, which includes depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet conversations on mental illness are uncommon. That was until last year, when a schizophrenic man disembarked from a Greyhound bus in Sacramento, California. He had been placed on the bus by a Las Vegas psychiatric hospital, and was told to call 9-1-1 when he arrived. The Sacramento Bee newspaper uncovered that he was just one of possibly 1,500 patients a Las Vegas hospital had shipped off. Patients were sent to nearly every state across the country, often landing in places they had never been without any support. It's a practice known as "greyhound therapy," and this story opened my eyes to what many of us have long ignored.
Greyhound therapy, or patient dumping, is nothing new. But never has it been uncovered on such a wide scale. In the first episode of our new documentary series for AXS TV, Dan Rather Presents: One Way Ticket to Nowhere, we get to the bottom of the story with what happened and why. We found former hospital employees who were willing to go on the record for the first time, as well as patients who had the courage to come forward with their personal stories. The Nevada story proved a jumping off point for a greater examination of our system of care. What we found was disheartening: America's mental health care system is in crisis.
Fifty years ago, the last bill President John F. Kennedy signed into law was designed to fund community centers for the treatment of people with mental disorders. The idea was to move people out of the infamously inhumane state-run psychiatric hospitals (think One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), and treat them closer to home. Psychiatric drugs and outpatient clinics could, in theory, provide better care and allow individuals to live a more normal life. However, Kennedy's wish never became a reality. Budgets for mental health care were cut, and as state hospitals closed, patients were left on the streets. At the same time, prison populations nearly doubled in many states, making jails the new mental institutions. According to a report released by the Treatment Advocacy Center last month, there are roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails, compared with 35,000 patients in state psychiatric hospitals.
Nevada's patient dumping has been roundly criticized, so we sought to better understand how it happened by spending time with the Las Vegas police department, homeless service organizations, emergency room physicians, and mental health experts. These people are typically the first line of contact for people with serious mental disorders, and they're all struggling to figure out how to best serve those in need. Las Vegas, which has faced tremendous growing pains as it's more than doubled in size over the past 20 years, is also trying to change course and do better. But it's an uphill battle.