An overwhelming demand: Lack of mental health facilities is critical


Editor's note: This story is part of a RiverTown Multimedia spotlight on mental health. Find the rest of the series here.

Far from a new issue, law enforcement and mental illness have become increasingly more entangled since state governments began to close their mental health hospitals in the 1950s, continually taxing the agencies tasked with responding to those in crisis.

Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, in a letter addressed to the 69th Legislature dated Jan. 27, 1975, wrote: “We know that, in the welfare field, we are accelerating the deinstitutionalization of the care and training of our mentally handicapped people in large state institutions in favor of providing these services in a community setting.”

A 2002 report coordinated by the Council of State Governments stated that people with mental illness are “falling through the cracks of this country’s social safety net and are landing in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.”

READ MORE: Mental health glossary 

According to Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, the current system is ill-equipped to handle the nuance of chronic mental health issues.

“They were never designed to treat the mentally ill,” Leslie said. “We've by default turned into that."

About 1 in every 3 jail inmates in the south metro county has a mental illness, he said.

"Law enforcement is not necessarily the best at getting help for people," Leslie said. "They're good at solving problems to get us through the night, but longer-term solutions for mental illness have to be followed up the next day."

The issue — pervasive and persistent — stems in part from the inability to meet an overwhelming demand.

“Our job is to protect and serve and help people and I feel like some of these people we are not helping,” said Spring Valley, Wis., Police Chief John DuBois. “And it’s a lack of resources, it’s not a lack of trying, it’s just a lack of resources and unfortunately it all boils down to money.”

Wisconsin’s Winnebago mental health hospital is the state’s lone facility mandated to accept patients.

For DuBois, and his western Wisconsin counterparts, that means a single psych transport can take an entire day.

“The mental health system in Wisconsin is a broken system and unfortunately the people that suffer are the people that need all the help,” DuBois said. “It’s a four-hour drive one way with a patient in handcuffs in the back.”

The Wisconsin Mental Health Act does allow Pierce and St. Croix counties to bring patients across the river. The state of Minnesota, however, lacks the resources to handle its own state mental health needs, according to Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin.

“Well for mental health in particular, we’re woefully, woefully behind the curve in Minnesota,” he said. “We have no adequate resources.”

Across Minnesota, law enforcement officials have noted a rise in the jail inmate population with mental illness, but they say they don’t always have access to the kind of treatment these people need.

The trend falls against the backdrop of shortage of state facilities able to better care for inmates with mental illnesses. The availability of beds in Minnesota’s psychiatric hospitals has led to shortfalls in getting inmates care, law enforcement and state officials have said.

McNurlin said in one instance his office transported an inmate to Fergus Falls only to find the nearest available bed was in Duluth, a 630-mile round trip from Red Wing.

“It’s extremely dysfunctional,” McNurlin said. “They're clearly not intended to be in the criminal justice system, but they end up there."

Minnesota requires inmates be evaluated for competency within 48 hours of a court order. Many times, inmates remain in jail longer than necessary, according to a 2016 Legislative Audit.

Among McNurlin's concerns are lack of follow-up programs for people released from jail, as well as deficiencies in court diversion programs for rehabilitating mentally-ill prisoners when the crime they’re arrested for stems from their condition.

Lack of resources, options

Ultimately, it boils down to a lack of resources.

“When a judge court orders a person to go to a mental health facility they’re supposed to go that day of the court order and health and human services will contact us and tell us they don’t have a bed,” McNurlin said. “And so we’re violating a judge’s order in keeping a person here in our facility and it could be days before they find a bed.”

The lack of options in Minnesota has led western Wisconsin law enforcement to face the challenge of being fortunate enough to find open beds at a private facility — usually in Eau Claire — or taking a 10-hour round-trip drive to Winnebago with two officers. This can turn an eight-hour shift into almost a 20-hour shift for officers.

“When you have to take them to Winnebago, that takes patients away from their local connection and support system. Especially for students from UW-River Falls, it takes them out of their local treatment and their family can’t have as much of an impact,” said River Falls Police Chief Gordon Young.

The issue of only one state psychiatric hospital is also beginning to rise.

Young said there were roughly 2,000 patients at Winnebago in 2013, which rose to 3,500 patients in 2016. Young expected that number to rise to more than 4,000 for 2017, doubling the total in only four years.

“This is a critical issue in the state Legislature. It’s a top priority to get a facility in Western Wisconsin,” Young said.

John R. Russett, Zach Dwyer, Sarah Hansen, Youssef Rddad and Maureen McMullen contributed to this report