July 5th, 2019

ME legislation seeks community-based mental health task force

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, vice president of Maine’s Sheriffs’ Association

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, vice president of Maine’s Sheriffs’ Association

Mentally ill patients often end up in emergency rooms, homeless shelters, or even jails instead of getting much needed psychiatric care. Senator Cathy Breen (D- )
Recently proposed legislation to address that problem.

Breen’s bill calls for a community-based task force that would assess mental health needs before a patient ends up in a place without adequate psychiatric care.

Local law enforcement is backing the legislation, hoping it will have an impact on the state’s incarceration rates.

In a Senate press release, Breen, who serves as chair of the egislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, explained that the reason for needing community-based care has to do with the lack of institutional care.

“Mental illness doesn’t excuse criminal behavior. But nobody gets arrested for being schizophrenic.” -- Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, vice president of Sheriffs’ Association, Maine

“When Maine and other states closed our dysfunctional and dehumanizing psychiatric institutions decades ago, we did so on the promise that people living with mental illness would get the evaluations, treatment, and support they needed within their communities,” she stated. “Instead, people with mental illness are far too often effectively re-institutionalized in prisons, jails, homeless shelters, and in-patient hospitals.”

Jenna Mehnert, MSW, NAMI Maine’s executive director, commented in a previous interview that jail is clearly an inappropriate option for the mentally ill, yet people end up there anyway.

“The only option they have is the ER or jail,” she said. “It’s the criminalization of mental illness. Seventy-seven percent of inmates are on psychotropic meds.”

Headlines have long focused on excessive wait times in emergency departments that can’t handle the volume of mental health patients who have no other recourse. Breen’s plan takes a close look at not only what can be done in communities but also how these mental health issues affect law enforcement.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, vice president of Maine’s Sheriffs’ Association, said he has worked directly with Mehnert and NAMI Maine’s “Stepping Up Initiative” to divert the mentally ill from jail into appropriate treatment.

“Many people are in jail because of their mental illness or drug addiction for theft, assault, or even just trespassing,” he said. “Mental illness doesn’t excuse criminal behavior. But nobody gets arrested for being schizophrenic.”

As Breen pointed out, when the state’s mental health institutions were shut down community-based support wasn’t there to pick up the slack. That’s when the backlash in ERs and jails began. Morton’s viewpoint is that this situation wasn’t necessarily foreseen at the time.

“I’m sure initially the intentions were good,” he said. “But when they de-institutionalized the state, they made people no longer wards of the state. Then, they went from one extreme to another.”

Morton added that although some departments don’t have enough budget to cover training, three quarters of his department is CIT-trained or trained in Mental Health First Aid. He sees that training as a major benefit, but it also has its downside—the toll it takes on officers.

“It’s different on officers. We’re exposed to an awful lot in our communities,” he said. “Young officers coming onto the job now, on day one we’re talking about mental illness and substance abuse. When I started, I got a pair of handcuffs and some keys. These officers are getting NARCAN.”

Morton said one of the problems in the jail system is that criminals and individuals with mental illness are put together in the same place.

“I’ve often said we’re the largest detox center in Maine—and we’re a jail.”

In jail or on the streets, police officers are dealing with mental health issues all the time. Morton’s hope is that with Breen’s legislation, there will be the opportunity to see where the holes in the system are because, as he noted, “I think the holes are gaping.”

By Eileen Weber

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