John Clair, the police chief of a small town in southwest Virginia, is facing a rising issue. His officers are constantly being called upon to handle situations involving individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis, including detaining, transporting, and waiting in hospitals with them.
Officers from Clair’s 21-member Marion Police Department crisscross the state to deliver patients for court-ordered treatment, sometimes only to discover the hospital where they were sent has no available beds. Patients end up boarding in waiting rooms or emergency rooms, sometimes for days on end, while under the supervision of Clair’s officers.
This issue is a concern for law enforcement organizations throughout Virginia. Advocates, lawyers, and leaders, such as Clair, believe that it takes up valuable police resources and leads to negative outcomes for patients. In the last five years, these types of transfers have become the most frequent type of case handled by the Marion department.
“We are against the wall,” said Clair, an Army veteran and former lay pastor who sometimes shuttles patients himself, and did so last month on a nearly 15-hour round trip to a coastal city on the other side of the state.
The issue highlights a commonly agreed upon belief that Virginia’s mental health system requires immediate restructuring, according to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, as there is an excessive dependence on hospitalization during a period of increasing demand.
Approximately one year ago, a Republican named Youngkin introduced a bold plan to revolutionize the delivery of psychiatric care. The goal is to establish a system that enables individuals to receive timely treatment in their own community, rather than being confined to a hospital. This would alleviate the strain on patients and law enforcement.
Virginia is not the only state facing challenges in addressing mental health issues. Youngkin, like others, has recognized the importance of improving mental health care in the U.S., which has become even more crucial during the pandemic due to increased isolation, fear, and grief. This issue is compounded by existing problems such as rising drug overdose deaths and the burden on teenage girls. According to survey data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, roughly 50% of adults with any form of mental illness did not receive treatment in 2022.
Brian Hepburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, stated that despite the political divide in the country, there is widespread support for behavioral health in both red and blue states.
According to John Littel, the cabinet secretary in charge of Virginia’s initiative, Youngkin’s focus on mental health was sparked during his 2021 campaign. Numerous individuals, including doctors, local officials, and police, urged him to prioritize this issue.
Littel stated that it was evident that individuals were facing significant challenges.
Youngkin has gained support from both parties for his “Right Help, Right Now” plan and has received praise from advocates. However, there are concerns about the speed at which progress is being made. The governor, who is unable to run for re-election and will finish his term in two years, has been notified by his press office that the initiative is surpassing important goals.
The initiative has a broad set of objectives, such as increasing the number of behavioral health professionals and addressing the growing number of overdose deaths. In 2022, an average of seven people per day in Virginia lost their lives to overdoses. Youngkin has passed numerous bills related to this issue and has also obtained a significant amount of additional funding, with more in the works.
The main aspect of the plan, according to Littel, is to establish a system that provides immediate assistance to people in crisis. This would also lessen the responsibility on police departments, such as Clair’s, who are responsible for transporting most patients deemed a danger to themselves or others by the court.
The Youngkin administration aims to enhance the continuum of care by expanding the quantity of mobile crisis units staffed with mental health professionals to address emergencies, as well as establishing additional short-term stabilization facilities to prevent patients from having to travel far from their homes for treatment.
A recent study by the government’s oversight committee highlighted the necessity.
A recent report presented to lawmakers revealed that in fiscal year 2023, Virginia had over 20,000 temporary detention orders. Out of these, 8,538 individuals faced delays in receiving psychiatric treatment despite being deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The report expressed worries about law enforcement “drop offs,” which occur when officers or sheriff’s deputies leave patients at a hospital or other facility before they are officially admitted. Testimony in a recent legislative hearing indicated that these drop-offs may put some patients in danger of dying.
In other parts of the United States, different states have had varying concerns and methods for enhancing mental health care.
The majority of states have utilized federal funds designated for the coronavirus pandemic to improve access to healthcare. Many governors have also addressed the topic of mental health in their recent state of the state speeches. A budget analysis conducted by the National Association of State Budget Officers revealed that mental health was a top priority in most states.
Will the emphasis persist?
Katherine McGuire, chief advocacy officer of the American Psychological Association, emphasized the importance of persistence in addressing the current situation, stating, “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Our daily goal is for states to understand that even after the public health emergency has ended, they must continue to prioritize and maintain efforts.”
State legislators in Virginia are currently examining proposed laws aimed at addressing the relationship between law enforcement and mental health.
Clair expressed his desire for open and honest communication regarding his department’s experiences in hopes of bringing attention to the urgent issue. However, he is concerned that the part-time General Assembly, currently dealing with contentious gambling and sports arena agreements, may hastily approve a solution that does not fully address the problem.
Clair, the patient who was transported across the state, has had approximately 15 mental health encounters with his agency in the span of 18 months. According to him, this has cost his department thousands of dollars, and one of the encounters involved a suicide attempt.
After their lengthy journey, the patient left a handwritten note expressing gratitude to the chief. Shortly afterwards, the patient was returned to the custody of the chief’s department.
Clair expressed concern for both law enforcement officials and individuals in distress, stating that prolonged detention in a police vehicle can worsen their situation. Both parties deserve improved treatment.
He expressed concern that we are continuously creating a situation that will lead to disaster.
This report was aided by Geoff Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.