Currently, the call across the country is to provide training to Police Officers so that they can recognize Mental Health issues and deal with them during crisis situations. This is just the latest offloading of society’s problems on to the backs of Law Enforcement. Like Body Cams, Mental Health training is an easy sounding, quick fix.
There is a Mental Health crisis in this country. Some of the symptoms are easy to spot. The huge increase in the homeless population in our cities is one. Other symptoms are more hidden in the suburbs and rural
areas. The roots of what we face now go back to a movement in Mental Health treatment that sounded good, promised much, and turned out to be a cynical fraud. The Deinstitutualization Movement came out of investigative reporting into deplorable conditions at some of the large Mental Health hospitals. Geraldo Rivera’s expose of the conditions at Willowbrook Hospital on Long Island gained National attention.
Traditionally, Mental Health patients were treated as patients in large hospitals. Some patients spent most of their lives behind locked doors. These patients had been committed to the custody of these institutions either voluntarily or involuntarily. Fairfield Hills Hospital, a sprawling multi-building facility in Newtown Connecticut, is an example. The 1975 film “One Flew Over The Coo Coo’s Nest” used the wards and hallways of Fairfield Hills for its interior scenes.
Beginning in the Kennedy administration, there was concern over what appeared to be unjust confinement of Mentally Ill Patients. The Mental Health Community’s response was to advocate for Community-Based Health Care rather than the reliance on the large residential hospitals. “Treatment in the least restrictive setting” became the slogan of the movement. The goal was to move patients to their communities rather than have them locked up. Community- Based Health Care, housing and other Social Services would be available to help the patients in their transition into the community at large and treatment would be on going.
Only the first half of the equation was accomplished. The big hospitals were closed, eliminating thousands of treatment spots. The Community-Based support was so underfunded that it was washed away in the flood as newly released patients descended on the cities. Most of the patients did not return to the communities they came from. Most of them wound up in the cities.
Patients who should have remained in restrictive settings for their own safety and that of others joined the flood of those released into the community. Beds for those that needed to be placed in long term settings disappeared.
In light of the Police Executive Research Forum’s 30 Guiding Principles, it has become clear that society now wishes to offload the responsibility for Mental Health Crisis Care onto local Police Departments. This now goes hand in hand with the expectation that local Police Forces are expected to be the first line of detection and defense against Terrorists and the front line on the War against Drugs.
PERF’s 30 Principles amount to a disarmament of Law Enforcement Officers who are expected to face danger on a daily basis. PERF’s principles regarding Mental Illness represent a fantasy world in which Mental Health Treatment and Professionals are readily available at a moment’s notice.
PERF’s recommendations on handling Mental Health issues in Critical Incidents may have the public believing that the Mental Health Crisis can be fixed with no cost to society. This not true, real world experience shows the fallacy of that idea every day.