At least half of the people shot and killed by police in the United States have mental health problems, but despite this and high-profile violent incidents that have led many to push for better treatment options, only 23 states increased their mental health budgets this year, according to reports out this week.
A report from the Treatment Advocacy Center found that at least 1 in 4 fatal police encounters involves the death of a person with a severe mental illness. It echoed the findings of a similar report from 2013.
The study used academic, government and media reports to calculate its findings but also called for gathering more-comprehensive data on police encounters that end with a civilian dead.
“We know more as a nation about feral cats than we do about law enforcement homicides,” said John Snook, executive director of the TAC.
He added that people with mental illness who don't receive treatment often end up in the criminal justice system. That is of higher cost to taxpayers and is more dangerous both for the patients and law enforcement.
“This is one of those issues that basically you get what you pay for, and we know we're doing the wrong thing,” he said. The number of available treatment beds also needs to grow so that a person can get treatment before police involvement, he added.
Law enforcement violence and unnecessary use of force has been a lightning rod topic recently across the nation, but mental health professionals have long warned about the dangers of interactions between the mentally ill and police. Snook said law enforcement officers have been put in an impossible position.
“The reality is this isn't their problem,” he said. “The problem is our mental health system has left the police to treat them.”
Also this week, the National Institute for Mental Illness released its third annual report on state mental health budgets and legislation. It found that only 11 states have steadily increased investment from 2013 to 2015.
After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 36 states and the District of Columbia in 2013 increased mental health spending. The number has declined since then, however. This year, 23 states increased spending.
Ron Honberg, policy director for NAMI, said most states have not fully recovered from the recession, when they made significant budget cuts across the board, including mental health.
A tragic event can bring public attention to mental health needs, but the passion is rarely sustained, he said.
“That's what often happens,” he said. “There's a lot of short-term interest paid to mental health ... and then it stops happening.”
The report did have some good news, Honberg said.
Minnesota passed a law to help fund treatment the first time people experience a psychotic episode. Utah directed several agencies to work together on methods for diverting people from jail to mental health treatment and Washington beefed up telehealth services.
Other states passed less favorable legislation, NAMI said. Oklahoma loosened licensing requirements for providers; Kansas gave Medicaid the power to limit reimbursement for psychiatric drugs; and North Carolina classified assaults on hospital personnel as Class I felonies.
But there is light on the horizon, Honberg said. He believes there is unprecedented potential for federal mental health legislation early next year. Several bills have been introduced to improve treatment access, but political rhetoric is getting in the way of forward movement.
Most of the bills have bipartisan provisions but also a small section with more politically controversial ideas like gun control through background checks and court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment that threaten to sink its chances. “One would think Congress could fix two or three lines but they have to be willing to work together,” he said.