Addressing mental health key in helping Austin’s homeless

Copyright 2016 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(a slightly shorter version published as a guest column on February 10, 2016
in the Austin American-Statesman)

     A few months ago, the Austin American-Statesman ran a series and two editorials addressing the plight of the homeless. I applaud Mr. Barragán for his excellent articles, but they only touched upon one homeless person with bipolar disorder who had attempted suicide, and mentioned as an afterthought that she was losing ground to her mental health condition.

     How fortunate if that one case were the exception, not the rule. But it’s not. Statistically, about one-third of our homeless population suffers from mental illness.

     To discover how so many unfortunates ended up in our streets, we must know the historical context. That will reveal the underlying issue: mental illness is a critical component of the struggle of the homeless.

     In 1955, there were about 560,000 people in psychiatric hospitals throughout the United States. Today, there are fewer than 50,000. Adjusting for growth in population, had the commitments held in 1955, there would now be more than one million persons in state hospitals.

     That changed in 1972, when the U. S. Supreme Court decided the case of Jackson vs. Indiana, which effectively shut down mental hospitals across the country. While many people who would have previously been institutionalized have successfully integrated into society, others have not and have no other alternative than the streets.

     As a result, there are today well over 475,000 homeless people in the U. S. So the situation of the homeless and the incarcerated as it exists today was the unintended consequence of the ruling in Jackson. This dynamic has given rise to strong opinions that we are mistreating our mentally ill. The fact that roughly 16 percent of prisoners held in jail are mentally ill is strong proof of that.

     Some critics believe our governments aren’t doing much about the problem. If treatment is left as an entirely voluntary choice, one of them noted, as in the past, these people will choose continued illness and misery. His solution was to build facilities where such individuals can be treated involuntarily.

     Whether the mentally ill roaming the streets should be treated involuntarily is a heavily debated issue. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, argues for the right to be an untreated schizophrenic.

     No matter where one stands on the question, one glaring fact remains: Until reforms take place, we, especially police officers, must cope with this universal problem.

     Most police officers aren’t adequately trained to address the issue. To begin with, they must familiarize themselves with the laws on mental illness.

     The Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code deals with emergency mental health evaluation, under which a police officer is authorized to detain a person for mental health evaluation in the absence of a court order under certain situations. One of these examples is if the officer, based on his own observation, has reasonable grounds to believe that the person, as a result of a mental disorder, presents a likelihood of serious harm to himself or others and that immediate detention is necessary to prevent such harm.

     What I wish to stress here is that there may be alternatives to putting someone who’s broken the law in jail. Jails are ill equipped—if at all—to treat the mentally ill.

     Our laws afford certain rights to our citizens, including the mentally ill. Their illness must be considered throughout the judicial process to assure those rights are protected. These protections should be accorded from the start: the moment a police officer first makes contact.

     If properly trained, officers could lessen the dangers to themselves, to the mentally ill, and to others. The dilemma of the mentally ill has given rise to many unfortunate and often deadly incidents that could have been avoided. Although the investigation has not been completed in Monday’s fatal police shooting in Northeast Austin, it is likely that mental illness played a role.

     The presiding judge in one of those cases complained that under state law, a judge was limited in what she could do with a mentally ill person who had broken the law. He suggested that the law should be changed to allow judges to send such offenders into a mental health system set up to help them.

     This idea isn’t new. New York is one of several states that made changes. Under the new law, New York saw an 86 percent reduction in incarcerations and an 83 percent drop in arrests of the mentally ill.

     As Austin looks for ways to help our homeless, let’s address the needs of the one-third suffering from mental illness and assure ourselves in turn that in applying our laws, we don’t mistreat them but instead help them get treatment.