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'Jail is not designed as a mental health facility'

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

In Polk County, Wis., a man — young by most standards at no more than 23 or 24 — picked up the phone, dialed 911, then sat down on the couch next to his gun and waited for an officer to arrive.

Little more than an hour's drive north of Spring Valley Police Chief John DuBois' office — up through Baldwin, past Pine, Bear Trap, Wapogasset and Deer lakes — sits the town of Centuria.

Years before he became a chief, DuBois patrolled the streets of Centuria with its roughly 950 residents, anxious and unsure, awaiting a solitary call.

READ MORE: Mental health glossary 

Each week for roughly three months DuBois was called to the residence of a young man in his early 20s who wanted to die.

"I was just waiting for the time I would get called because he finally was able to carry out his wishes and end his life," he said.

John DuBoisDuBois gave the young man his cellphone number, told him to call or text at anytime and for three months acted as his counselor until a bed at a psychiatric unit became available.

The interminable/incessant inevitability of mental illness' collision with law enforcement was set in motion by the realization that state-run institutions were not consistently providing proper care for their patients.

Decision-making on the road

Signed in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, the Community Mental Health Act created the nation's system of community mental health centers.

Community centers, along with the increased effectiveness and prevalence of psychotropic drugs throughout the 1960s, helped progress mental health treatment beyond a long-term or lifelong stay in an institution.

READ MORE: An overwhelming demand: Lack of mental health facilities is critical | Spotlight on mental health: Trish's story

The shift in policy precipitated a shift in how communities handle mental health issues, with law enforcement finding themselves regularly responding to those in mental health crisis.

Josh Hanson"It's a complicated issue," said Goodhue County Patrol Sgt. Josh Hanson. "It's a lot of difficult decision-making on the road, especially in dynamic situations that are developing by the second."

Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman's introduction to dealing with mental illness as a law enforcement officer began with a story.

A tragedy, the main character's own voice is all that remains in the end, lingering, a reprimand for those who stood idle, ignoring the pleas.

The message was simple — listen.

This message solidified upon Pohlman's 2005 return to his shift as night sergeant after a deployment in Iraq. In November, his first month back in North Dakota, he responded to four suicides.

Early last year, Pohlman made it a practice to hand-deliver a book to families affected by suicide. Last year alone, he delivered five in a community of 16,500.

Roger Pohlman"People in this community are hurting and we need to be aware of that when we respond," he said. "Sometimes, they just need you to listen."

The number of emotional disturbance and suicidal calls across for service across Washington County jumped from 380 in 2014 to 468 in 2016.

According to Rosemount Police 2016 Annual Report, the department responded to 94 mental health calls in 2014, 101 in 2015 and 128 in 2016.

With encounters between law enforcement and citizens with mental illness on the rise, resources and training are at a premium as jails continue to function partially to house those with a mental health issue.

"Jail is not designed as a mental health facility; it's not well-prepared to deal with serious issues," said Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie. "It's almost an afterthought. Jail is created to protect the public from certain individuals who are misguided, misplaced or are criminals. We like to keep criminals in there, not people who are mentally ill who commit crimes they wouldn't do if they were in a different environment."

But that's not what's happening. Despite best efforts, a disproportionate number of people with mental illness end up in prisons and jails.

No place to go

Officials say the challenges stem from the 1960s when state lawmakers closed public psychiatric institutions. The remaining state psychiatric facilities in St. Peter and Anoka are often full.

"We still need places for people who are seriously mentally ill," said Goodhue County Programs Coordinator Janet Adams.

READ MORE: Spotlight on mental health: Addressing the issue

Minnesota state Sen. David Senjem sees gaps in mental health care as nothing new, but the concerned voices are growing louder. "It's almost at an emergency level," he said.

The Rochester Republican and chairmen of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, introduced legislation last year to fund more mental health facilities through bonding dollars.

He said he plans to introduce similar legislation when lawmakers convene Feb. 20, which includes $30 million for five or six community triage centers to serve patients in crisis at all hours, as well as $50 million for long-term mental health treatment facilities.

"I know it's going to be expensive, but I challenge anybody else to come up with a better solution," Senjem said.

The three most populous mental institutions in the nation: Riker's Island, Cook County and L.A. County prisons.

— Samantha Bengs, Maureen McMullen, Youssef Rddad and Kit Murray contributed to this report

John R. Russett

John Russett is a regional reporter for RiverTown Multimedia, covering a variety of issues facing RiverTown communities. Previously, he worked at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, where he reported on education as well as crime and courts. 

You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRyanRussett


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