During the last four years the answer to that question has been “no.” But the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado are prompting a number of states to consider expanding their budgets for mental health services.
Four years ago, around 30 states instituted drastic cuts to their mental health budgets. They cited two major reasons: The economic recession and growing demands for a leaner and less intrusive government.
This movement to cut mental health services actually goes back to the Reagan years, when both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum began taking a skeptical look at government-funded services for the mentally ill. Conservatives argued that psychiatric services lay outside the proper realm of government; liberals were shocked by the inhumane conditions that prevailed in many hospitals. Both sides raised questions about the civil rights of mentally ill patients who might have been confined against their will.
The US decided that many of those patients should be returned to the community and provided services in local settings that respected their dignity. The Baker Act was supposed to ensure that dangerous patients would be confined in secure settings.
Not everyone praised the changes. A number of experts from both the mental health and the criminal justice fields predicted dire consequences: Many patients who should be receiving psychiatric care would instead land on the streets, and patients too ill to distinguish between right and wrong would commit heinous crimes. No one paid attention to the warnings.
But now it seems that many people are listening, including government officials in high positions. The Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, says that spending cuts in mental health budgets are “absolutely immoral.” Kansas just announced a $10 million program to identify mental health dangers. Pennsylvania and Utah are planning new programs for the mentally ill.
The gun lobby has become an unexpected partner in the quest for expanded psychiatric services at taxpayers’ expense. Some pro-gun advocates are hoping that directing public attention to mental illness will lessen some of the pressure for stronger gun regulations.
According to mental health experts, using public money for psychiatric services makes sense. Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey notes that serious, untreated mental illness accounts for 20 percent of our prison population, a third of homelessness, and 10 percent of homicides.
No one is suggesting that money alone will solve the problem. Under the US Constitution, individual rights sometimes trump fears for public safety. Patients with severe and dangerous mental illness often claim that they’re the healthy ones: It’s the rest of society that’s sick. What is to be done with a person who refuses psychiatric treatment?
And how do we determine which patients pose a threat to the rest of us? Experts are quick to remind us that most people suffering from mental illness are harmless. Do we use a “just-in-case” policy to justify confining them to a secure institution? What about the Constitution? Who should make these decisions and—perhaps the biggest question of all—where is the money going to come from? So far there are far more questions than answers.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.