The worst of mental health care

Published 7:08 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2016

    Liberals eager to promote individual dignity and freedom joined conservatives angling for ways to save taxes that could instead be spent on prisons several decades ago. Together, they sang Cumbaya, and began closing mental hospitals across Virginia.

    The result has turned Virginia jails into holding cells for the mentally ill. The process has become a shameful chapter in Virginia’s treatment of its most vulnerable citizens, and has even turned deadly on occasion, as in the case of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died in the Portsmouth jail while court orders for his transfer to Eastern State Hospital were ignored.

    Just about every newspaper in Hampton Roads, including this one, has carried stories quoting jail administrators who plead for relief. None of them want to be caretakers of the mentally ill. They are not trained to do so, their facilities are not built to do so, and yet, Virginia’s insistence on criminalizing mental illness continues to fill their cells with persons who need medical care, not punishment.

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    Judges know it, lawyers know it and jail administrators know it. The only people who appear to remain clueless in Virginia are the people who could do something about it — a majority of the Virginia General Assembly. They continue to cling to the 1980s “lock ‘em up” philosophy. It was that philosophy that underwrote construction of new prisons and jails and closed wing after wing and eventually entire mental hospitals.

    Mental hospital administrators and employees are overwhelmed by demands on their facilities — demands that they cannot meet. That doesn’t excuse the loss of the court order that would likely have saved Mitchell’s life, but it is the awful reality of the system today.

    The idea behind treating the mentally ill in community settings is extraordinarily important, for it does provide a measure of independence and worth that could never be achieved in an institutional environment. But it very often requires constant vigilance and professional management, for the people whom it is expected to serve are often the least able to manage their own affairs.

    In Mitchell’s case, he appears to have stopped taking his schizophrenia medication last year and had begun to act irrationally. He walked into a 7-Eleven, allegedly stole a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake valued at just over $5.

    He was caught and a judge appropriately ordered him sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and help. Instead, he sat in jail for months while the judge’s order languished in bureaucrats’ paper stacks. He lost at least 36 pounds and died in his cell where he was found lying in his own filth.

    Jail officials say they did nothing wrong. State officials say they have no authority to even investigate whether anything wrong occurred. Portsmouth will likely end up paying Mitchell’s family damages for his death and another chapter in Virginia’s failing mental health policies will be closed.

    Western Tidewater is not immune from this problem. Local police and sheriff’s deputies can all tell stories dating back decades of their efforts to help chronically mentally ill people who have tried to cope with minimal care and supervision. These are people who have in some instances been watched over by neighbors, friends and family until a crisis occurs. And then, too often, a jail stay results because there is no room in an appropriate mental health facility.

    This is a complex and expensive social issue, and Virginia has yet to fully come to grips with it. There are long waiting lists of people whose caregivers, often aging parents, will not be able to provide the supervision they need much longer. Others are individuals who have little or no family support to begin with.

    It’s time that we demand that the General Assembly fund a system that can step in when needed and, coupled with stronger community support programs, finally care for those who simply cannot care for themselves.