PITTSBURG — A lack of resources for dealing with people with mental health issues is not a challenge unique to Pittsburg or Crawford County, but there is little doubt that inadequate funding for mental health treatment has been causing problems locally for years and continues to do so.
Rick Pfeiffer, the county’s executive administrator for health, mental health and juvenile services recently contacted the Crawford County Commission, hoping to arrange a discussion with the commission as well as law enforcement about mental health evaluations that the county has to pay for, County Clerk Don Pyle said at the May 10 commission meeting.
“We really don’t have any place to go with those people if they need mental health services really,” Pyle said. “I mean the state’s kind of out of that at this point.”
Asked by Commissioner Tom Moody how the county is currently dealing with mentally ill individuals, Pyle said that “law enforcement supervision becomes kind of the default.”
Sheriff Danny Smith, who was also at the meeting, spoke in further detail about the issue, which he said is a problem nationwide.
“As the resources have depleted for people with, you know, mental issues, we’re basically housing them in jails and prisons,” he said. “At one point in time in the ‘90s we had over 1,000 beds in the State of Kansas and now we’re down to 250 I think, if not less.”
There is not much money to be made in addressing many kinds of mental health problems, and consequently private sector solutions are often lacking.
“I think it’s going to be one of the things where legislators are going to have to come up with some kind of a solution,” Smith said.
Commissioner Moody asked Smith if those with mental health problems are segregated from other inmates in the county jail. The answer to that question depends on the person’s capacity, Smith said. If they are unable to function among the jail’s general population, they do have to be housed in a separate area, which becomes an issue because the space they take up is limited and should be used for other purposes. Smith added that law enforcement personnel are not trained to deal with people with mental health issues.
“It’s very taxing on our staff, because quite frankly a lot of times they would rather deal with somebody that’s a violent offender than, you know, somebody that’s having mental issues,” Smith said.
“They’re not trained to do that. It’s not good on either side. We’re not helping these people. When I first got into this line of work, anybody with a diminished mental capacity, you did not bring them into jail, that didn’t happen. Well as the years have, kind of went by, now it’s just the norm.”
Smith said that in the more than two decades he has worked in law enforcement, everything from policies, to technology, to weaponry has advanced and evolved, but when it comes to mental health things have gone backwards, as dealing with the mentally ill has become law enforcement’s job by default.
“Unfortunately what happens with them is usually it’s a minor offense that you arrest them for, you bring them over to the jail, and then you start a criminal circle with them, you know, let’s say they get probation, well if they don’t have the mental capacity to really comply with that, they’ll be back at the jail again. So it’s really not doing them any justice,” he said.
Moody said it sounds like a huge problem, and Smith agreed that it is.
“Basically in a nutshell that’s what’s happened is the jails and prisons have become mental hospitals,” Smith said.
Law enforcement simply deals with the situation because they have no other choice, Smith said, but at some point there will have to be some kind of legislative solution.
“Until there’s funds available for housing, we can do all the training and all that kind of business, but until there’s a place for these guys to go to, they’re coming to the jail, and that’s unfortunate,” Smith said.
The county commissioners discussed setting up a future date to discuss the issue, but could not schedule a time that worked for all of them at the May 10 meeting. Rick Pfeiffer of the county health department attended the commission’s May 14 meeting, however, and discussed the issue further in an interview with the Morning Sun.
“What we do is we go to the jail to do our legal requirement of screening people to determine whether they are in need of commitment or not to a medical, mental health or addiction facility,” Pfeiffer said. He added that issues surrounding mental health, crime and drug addiction are often interconnected.
“We have people that leave the jail and come to treatment,” Pfeiffer said. “We have people that leave treatment and go back to jail. There is a relationship sometimes to illegal activity with addiction.”
People who have mental issues frequently develop addiction issues, and the opposite can also be true.
“Certainly there are dual diagnosis issues around mental health and addiction. Sometimes using or addictive behavior can accelerate the mental illness, and sometimes the addiction to drugs can cause a brain-based mental illness. Certainly they both are tied together,” Pfeiffer said.
The County Health Department operates an Addiction Treatment Center in Girard, although it is currently at capacity. The department is in the process of securing funding for a new Addiction Treatment Center that it has plans to build.
After having meetings on the issue, “we determined that we needed to be able to expand to a larger facility and we needed to have the structure of the activity closer to health services in Pittsburg,” Pfeiffer said.
He said that when it is complete, the new Addiction Treatment Center should alleviate some of the problems facing law enforcement when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill, though some will remain.
“When it’s appropriate and a person is at a place of needing recovery and their legal requirements do not require them to be in jail, certainly they could get a provision of treatment from us. Sometimes people are required to be in jail,” Pfeiffer said.
Like Smith, Pfeiffer said that more resources from the state could go a long way towards solving problems associated with people who have mental health issues.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve probably lost locally around $2 million in regard to community services for the mentally ill,” he said, “so we have been struck way down in regard to our historical funding base.”