The increase in mental health-related calls reported on in Monday’s Journal-World is not news to local law enforcement officials.
Why that increase has occurred is perhaps less important than how the community deals with the issue, and local law enforcement officials deserve praise for their efforts in that area. However, the fact that this trend hasn’t been reversed suggests the community as a whole needs to look at new ways to reach out and help people with mental illness.
Some of the increase in police calls related to mental illness may be attributable to an increased awareness by local officers who are better trained to recognize certain problems and behaviors. Another likely factor is the closure of some residential mental health centers in the state, which has moved more people with serious mental illness into community settings, where they may find it difficult to stay on track with their treatment.
Lawrence is fortunate to have the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, which continues to do an admirable job of providing mental health services despite severe state funding cuts. Lawrence Memorial Hospital has added a Crisis Stabilization Service in its emergency department, but the shortage of longer-term care facilities at LMH or elsewhere continues to be an issue. According to LMH, 64 percent of the 748 people cared for in the crisis center last year were then admitted to in-patient treatment facilities in nearby cities.
Unfortunately, police say, in many cases, the stays in those facilities often aren’t long enough to really get patients back on track. Police often are responding to calls for the same people almost immediately after they get back to Lawrence.
This is a sad cycle that is unfair both to the people with mental illness and the taxpayers who must support extensive mental health services through their jail and law enforcement budgets. Treating mental illness in a community setting is an admirable goal, but the increasing number of suicide and mental health calls that local law enforcement are receiving are a strong indication that this system isn’t meeting all of its intended goals.
Suicide attempts accounted for 369 calls to Lawrence police in 2010 and 414 calls in 2012. It was reported this week that the suicide rate in Kansas increased by 31.5 percent last year, when 505 suicide deaths were recorded, compared with 384 in 2011.
Not all mental health cases lead to suicide but the combined impact of both issues is a serious public health concern for Kansas. It’s an issue that demands increased attention not only from local law enforcement officials but also from state policy makers.