Parish leaders call mental health situation a 'crisis'
BATON ROUGE - It's a hidden problem to most of us -- mental health care for those who desperately need it. However, a growing number of people are having to get treated on the taxpayers dime, since there is not access to mental health hospitals in the area.
Two health care facilities closed in the last couple of years. Now, the East Baton Rouge Parish jail resembles a hospital ward with hundreds of people with mental health issues locked up.
Nearly 500 beds could be freed up at the jail immediately if a mental health hospital opened. An emergency room doctor at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital estimates at least 700 patients come through the hospital each month with mental health issues. However, finding the money for a mental health facility is a challenge.
Elected leaders are reluctant to ask taxpayers to fund a potential solution. The jail is packed, and the mental health issues are said to be at "crisis" levels.
Mentally ill patients have noticed a change in recent years, saying access to care for their conditions is downright awful. That means many continue to cost you a lot of money.
Lewald Williams was first diagnosed with a mental illness 27 years ago. Since then, he's been having to see doctors to keep functioning.
"A shot, every four weeks," Williams said. "Yes sir. Yes ah. I've been going since 1988."
Williams has problems if he doesn't get it.
"They say schizophrenia, he told me about that two years ago," Williams said. "I ignore some of the things they tell me though."
Some problems just can't be ignored. It hangs like an albatross around the medical and law enforcement community's necks. What was once as an alternative to jailing hundreds of mentally ill people each year, Earl K Long, just rots today.
"It did not go away because it was unsuccessful, it went away simply the state closed Earl K. Long down," EBR Coroner Beau Clark said.
Now much of the burden of housing the mentally ill falls in the laps of EMS right here at the parish jail. Those awaiting trial are typically isolated from the general population.
"We have to make a decision on whether we want to rehabilitate inmates or we just want to warehouse them," Warden Dennis Grimes said.
Warehousing appears to be the current option. Records obtained by the Investigative Unit show that half of those on prescription medicine at the jail are on psychotic medicines, medicines that cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each month. While the most dispensed pills inmates take have complicated clinical names, they treat commonly known illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders.
Medical professionals say incarcerated patients often start their journey in area emergency rooms where there is a shortage of beds. When the emergency rooms get too full, people are stuck on the streets and often are put in the jail.
Nearly 6,000 mental health patients are diagnosed by the coroner's office each year. While many will go to private facilities, others have few options.
With the closing of Baton Rouge General's emergency room looming, one less facility is available. Recently discussions are underway to find a solution, but those discussions are being held behind closed doors.
"They need to be in as hospital getting their mental health treatment," Clark said. "But it also helps take the load of emergency departments they end up being the safety net for all of this stuff."
In San Antonio the medical community determined that by combining resources of jail diversion, crisis care, and detox and substance abuse programs, 1,000 people are avoiding jail cells each year. It saves taxpayers $10 million.
"We get then to primary care and disease management so they are productive citizens again," San Antonio's health care director Leon Evans said. "They've re-established their relationship with family and friends and it's kind of a miracle."
For Williams, though, he's just trying to get by each day as access to care for the mentally ill continues to get difficult.
"My brother wants me to move to Texas since everything changed so much down here," Williams said.
On Wednesday the Metro Council is expecting a report outlining alternative funding sources to treat mental health patients. Metro Councilman John Delgado, Councilman Ryan Heck, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a team of medical professionals and other community leaders are scheduled to take a trip to San Antonio next week to see how that city handles their mental health patients.
State social workers plan to meet with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation Tuesday to discuss possible solutions to this mental health crisis.