As we begin the new year, it is fair to say that the crisis in mental health is deepening with every tragic shooting and death of an individual who comes into contact with law enforcement and/or inappropriately enters the criminal justice system.
In February, 2015, 24-year-old Levall Hall from South Florida was tasered by police and shot five times, allegedly for failing to comply with police commands. According to the Miami Herald, Mr. Hall's mother informed police dispatch that her son was released from a psychiatric hospital within the week and needed to go back. Reports confirmed that Mr. Hall did not have a firearm, but was brandishing a broomstick.
On August 19, 2015, 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead in his jail cell in Portsmouth, Virginia, after an arrest for petit theft. According to reports, Mr. Mitchell, who was being treated for mental illness, allegedly stole a soda and a zebra cake, worth an estimated $5.00. Mr. Mitchell was found unconscious in his cell, while waiting for a psychiatric bed, in accordance with a Judge's order.
This past week, 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, a Northern Illinois University student, home for the holidays and his 55-year-old neighbor, Betttie Jones, a mother of five, were shot during an encounter with police. According to news reports, the police were called after Legrier allegedly threatened his father with a metal baseball bat. Ms. Jones lived on the first floor and was accidently shot through the door.
According to the Washington Post, in its investigative report, "Distraught People, Deadly Results", Post researchers discovered that of the 462 people shot, 124 were known to be or reported in the throes of a mental health or emotional crisis. As noted, these individuals were overwhelmingly male, died close to home, and half were suicidal.
Further, investigators point out that most of these men were armed, many with "some kind of weapon less lethal than a firearm." As reported, "six had toy guns, 3 carried a machete or a knife, and 1 had a broomstick."
According to a recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, "people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter." Consequently, the Treatment Advocacy Center recommends limiting encounters with law enforcement as the most immediate life-saving strategy.
More to the point, these encounters with law enforcement or corrections officers have become inextricably linked to chronic deficit spending and flawed mental health policies, with tragic results. As the federal government continues to over-rely on the criminal justice system, it is fair to ask why? Why, when the root cause barriers to care are the salient drivers into the criminal justice system?
There is no way to end the cycles of crisis in America, unless our nation changes its philosophy and adopts a public health approach to mental health care. An approach where prevention, early intervention and access to integrated community behavioral health treatment and services is the core focus, from a recovery perspective.
America must turn the page on its over-dependence on the criminal justice system. In order to break arrest cycles and end inappropriate criminalization of people with mental illness we must support community based behavioral health care. We need public health champions, like Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., Commissioner of who is leading Philadelphia into a new era of behavioral health. A system dedicated to recovery for adults, resiliency for children and self-determination for people with intellectual disabilities.
It is New Year, a time for reflection and new resolve. America needs a new approach to mental health care - it is a matter of life and death.