We Know What To Do: Let’s Finally Do It! Stop Criminalizing Mental Illness


Let’s begin the new year by celebrating success stories and I can’t think of a better model for other communities to follow when it comes to stopping the criminalization of persons with mental illnesses than what I have personally observed in Bexar County, Texas, home of San Antonio.

Thanks largely to the leadership of Leon Evans, the CEO and President of the Center for Health Care Services, Bexar County has become an example of what can happen when a community joins together to improve its mental health services.

* The Bexas County jail — once so overcrowded that the county was considering building a new one — now has a surplus of roughly one thousand empty beds!

*Bexar County saved an estimated $9 million annually in jail costs and inappropriate emergency room admissions — close to $50 million alone in savings to the community since 2008.

How did Bexar County achieve these successes? Duh!  By focusing on diverting non-violent individuals with serious mental illnesses from incarceration into treatment and crisis services outside the criminal justice system.

And that is something every community and state should be doing!

Bexar County began by implementing Crisis Intervention Team training for his police department but then went a step further by building a  24 hour Crisis Care Center, which receives individuals exhibiting signs and symptoms of serious mental illness from law enforcement 24/7 and diverts them away from jails and the streets into treatment and recovery centers.

I’ve visited the CCC, as it is called, and have seen how easy the center has made it for law enforcement to drop off individuals with mental illnesses for care rather than booking them into jails or emergency departments.

But Bexar County didn’t stop there, it began providing housing with close accessibility to the support services that individuals need to recover. This includes a restoration center that provides medical detox and a broad array of substance abuse services as well as sobering services and medical clearance screening. Most importantly, Bexar County integrated psychiatric care, transitional housing systems and general health services or to be blunt — it began providing wrap around services to people who needed help.

I’ve spent the past seven years touring our country and what I’ve discovered is the secret to providing decent mental health care is no secret at all. You have to provide individuals in crisis with services that meet their specific needs and you have to do it in ways that are accessible to them. It all starts with a leader who can force different agencies to speak to each other and look beyond their own silos and work together. It requires adequate funding.

Our current mental health care crisis is not due to ignorance. We know how to help most persons with mental disorders. We simply aren’t doing it.

Before the end of 2013, I participated in a “What Works” conference called Connect 4 Mental Health that focused on successful programs across our nation. You can learn more about Bexar County and other innovative programs being done in other communities by viewing videos that are posted on the Connect 4 webpage.

We are at a tipping point in this nation when it comes to mental health. The White House wants to do something, Congress wants to do something (see blog about Rep. Tim Murphy’s controversial bill) and state legislators are focusing on mental health reform.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we should look at proven success stories — such as those hightlighted at the Connect 4 Mental Health conference. We should stop studying the problem and actually take steps to solve it.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.