Jail not proper venue for psychiatric-care inmates

An exhaustive series by The Vindicator on mental-health care and drug-addiction treatment should prompt state lawmakers to conduct a special hearing on what has become a major challenge for local communities.

The three-part series consisting of six stories was published last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The stories not only defined the extent of the problem but detailed how existing programs are failing to meet the growing need.

Of particular concern is the shortage of psychiatric beds, which has led to county jails and state prisons housing inmates with mental-health issues.

As Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich succinctly put it, “The overriding thing in the state now appears to be: ‘Save money’,” in the mental-health and prison systems. “The whole thing has to be reviewed.”

Judge Milich also said there’s a shortage of alcohol and drug-abuse treatment availability for poor people in Mahoning County.

Therein lies the basis for the legislative hearing. At the heart of the discussion is this question: Should the state of Ohio return to the days when state-run psychiatric hospitals were the rule rather than the exception?

In 1980, Ohio had 19 state psychiatric facilities, including the 119-bed Woodside Receiving Hospital on Youngstown’s South Side. There was a combined daily resident population of 5,129 patients.

Today, there are just six psychiatric hospitals, including two in this part of the state: Heartland Behavioral Healthcare in Massillon and Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare in Northfield.

There are plans to build another hospital, but state mental-health officials are adamant that the days of warehousing patients are long gone.

However, as The Vindicator series clearly revealed, the demand for mental heath care and drug-addiction recovery programs is growing by leaps and bounds.

Public-policy implications

The public-policy implications are obvious.

“One of the biggest providers of mental- health services in the state are jails, and we have to fix that,” said Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the county mental health and recovery board.

But that’s easier said than done, given that the number of beds available in the state facilities and in private hospitals aren’t meeting the demand.

While state officials obviously believe that the systems and programs now in place argue against the wholesale expansion of state psychiatric facilities, Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally raises a cost-benefit point.

“Offenders will be diagnosed [with a mental illness] while they’re in jail, and that requires more treatment dollars and more treatment staff,” McNally pointed out.

Agencies of the county mental health and recovery board provide 24 hours of individual and group mental-health counseling and an additional 24 hours of substance-abuse counseling.

The agencies are funded through a combination of revenue from a property tax levy and state and federal dollars.

There is a national program to reduce the number of mentally ill people in jails, and the county has received a $150,000 a year, two-year grant to help meet that goal.

However, Mahoning County commissioners have noted that the prevalent rates of serious mental illnesses in jails are three to six times higher than in the general population.

There are many other aspects to this growing problem, which is why the Republican-led Ohio General Assembly should waste no time in delving into the issue of state prisons and county jails housing inmates with mental-health issues.

“We’re the largest mental health provider in the state,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, in a video titled, “Sick, Tired and Behind Bars in Ohio.”

The department operates state prisons, where 20 percent of Ohio’s 50,521 inmates are seriously mentally ill.

If those statistics don’t sway the legislators, perhaps this comment from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, will: “There are 10 times more people with mental illness in Ohio prisons than in our state’s mental health hospitals.”

It is an untenable situation that decision-makers in Columbus must address.

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