In Sunday’s New York Times, a headline on the op/ed page underscored one of the central challenges in mental health and criminal justice circles: How do we reduce the number of people with mental illness in our jails and prisons? The column, “Inside a Mental Health Hospital Called Jail,” profiles Cook County Jail in Chicago, where some 60 percent of the inmates on a given day are diagnosed with a mental illness.
That’s a staggering number, but Chicago isn’t alone. Across the country, you’ll often hear jail administrators and prison wardens tell you they run the largest mental health facilities in their communities. The percentages vary (possibly because of different definitions of “mental illness”), but the message those numbers deliver is the same: many of the people we put behind bars need treatment, not punishment.
If we turn our attention closer to home, Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash will tell you that about 40 percent of the inmates in the county jail have a mental illness. A large number of them are there for minor offenses: public intoxication, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest. For decades, they’ve landed in corrections facilities, in part, because law enforcement officers have no other place to take them. And once there, the jail has to pay for their treatment, which often means footing the cost of expensive medications.
Well, I’m happy to report that our community is taking steps toward addressing this issue. Last month, Governor Sam Brownback announced that the state would contract with a newly formed subsidiary of Wyandot Center to provide 24/7 crisis services at the Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan., which has operated with just a few short-term crisis beds for more than two years. (Thirty Rainbow beds were transferred to Osawatomie State Hospital in late 2011.)
This “crisis stabilization resource,” called Rainbow Services Inc., is scheduled to open April 1 and will be operated in collaboration with Johnson County Mental Health Center and Heartland Regional Drug and Alcohol Assessment Center (RADAC). When it opens, residents in Wyandotte and Johnson counties will have access to a dedicated place to get help, no matter the time of day, when they’re experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. To put it another way, as Gov. Brownback did when announcing the project, they’ll have a “port of calm.”
The new Rainbow will offer various services in the least restrictive setting possible at one convenient location: round-the-clock access to assessment services; a medically supervised crisis observation unit for up to 23 hours; a sobering unit to help people struggling with withdrawal symptoms; and a crisis stabilization unit with medical oversight for up to 10 days.
In addition to thinking of Rainbow Services as a port of calm, we should also think of it as a “port of access” to community-based behavioral health services. Those receiving treatment at Rainbow Services will return to their communities with recovery plans designed to help them lead a more stable and rewarding life. They’ll be encouraged to use case management services, substance use services, and other resources to assist their recovery. In this way, Rainbow Services, Heartland RADAC, Wyandot Center, Johnson County Mental Health Center, law enforcement, first responders and other partners will be working together to help keep people in crisis out of jail – and to increase the chances that they’ll end up receiving community-based treatment.
Of course, Rainbow Services is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing the huge needs our communities face when trying to encourage people with serious mental health issues to seek treatment. We also need courts that are willing to work on diversion programs; we need regular citizens – families, friends and neighbors – who know how to get help for those in crisis; we need law enforcement officers who know how to interact with people who are experiencing mental health crises.
To these ends, I’m also happy to report that our community is making progress. In addition to our new 24/7 crisis resource, we have judges who are beginning to understand and respond to the needs of people with mental illness. We have people working inside the jail who are coordinating care for those with behavioral health needs. We have a growing Mental Health First Aid program that gives people the skills they need to address crises. And we have a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program that helps law enforcement officers learn how to protect themselves, the public and people who are experiencing mental health crises.
In the coming months, I’ll be talking more about these efforts. Next up: personal stories about how CIT officers in Wyandotte County have helped.
This editorial originally appeared in Wyandot Inc.’s February 2014 eNewsletter. Republished in its entirety, and with permission.