New Orleans Mental Health System Is Broken, but There Is a Solution

Arthur Hunter, Jr.

Across the country, communities are arguing how to fix a broken mental health care system.

Much of the arguments are political fights over public safety and housing, equating homelessness with mental illness and both with violence and crime.

However, research shows most people with mental illness are not violent and they are more likely to be victims of crime.

In New York City, the mayor initiated a policy that will hospitalize people with mental illness against their will, “including anyone with a mental illness who cannot take care of their basic needs and even if they are not an active threat to themselves or others.”

In California the governor signed a law, “to order more people with schizophrenia and other disorders into treatment or face conservatorship- when someone loses their independence and is appointed a guardian to handle their affairs.”

Both initiatives have been attacked by disability rights groups as civil liberties violations and further traumatization.

In New Orleans, we are not immune from a broken mental health system.

The city administration, sheriff’s office, federal monitors and mental health advocates have been fighting for years, just on one aspect of the mental health crisis-how do we treat people with mental health illnesses that are arrested for crimes.

Recently, the Advocate published an article stating a proposal to build a mental health facility at the jail would cost $89 million, a 25% increase from the $51 million the city quoted in 2021.

The time is long past, not only to provide mental health services to people arrested, but also to help our children, families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, veterans and the homeless.

The mayor, sheriff, federal monitors, judges, district attorney, public defender, coroner, EMS, NOPD, Health Department, mental health, housing advocates, and the medical community must come together to create a comprehensive sustainable mental health plan for the city.

The plan must include, although not exclusive:

1. Early detection and treatment for children, teens and young adults.

2. Mental health professionals with NOPD crisis intervention officers should respond to crisis calls.

3. Utilize the established civil and criminal mental health courts to provide services and monitoring, especially to nonviolent offenders while their cases are pending.

4. Provide affordable individual housing units to reduce homelessness.

5. Establish a community mental health center for outpatient services such as the Fountain House.

6. Establish a mid and long term care facility in a health care environment, other than what we have now-the jail serving as a de-facto mental health facility or 3 days in and out from a hospital.

7. Increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for mental illness.

If we make this happen, it will provide mental health treatment and services to our community, reduce crime and consequently jail costs.

Do we have a broken mental health system? Yes.

Is it a crisis? Yes.

Can it be fixed? Yes.

The right people with the right ideas doing the right thing, will lead to a solution, not excuses.

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