Shelby County looks to divert people with mental illness away from jail

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 5:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For people experiencing a mental health crisis, who shows up can make all the difference in the world.

Shelby County leaders are working to ensure the right people show up when it matters.

Too often, experts say people experiencing a mental health crisis end up dead or in a jail cell.

Shelby County leaders are trying to change that.

Jails and prisons are sometimes referred to as “the new asylums.”

The phrase was coined because people experiencing mental health disorders often end up there.

The exact number of inmates with a mental illness is unclear, but according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report, 44% of inmates said they’d been told by a mental health professional they have a mental health disorder.

“There are so many people that wind up in jail over a mental health crisis that does not need to be in jail,” said Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, Jr.

In April, Bonner and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced a new crisis intervention program, allowing clinical professionals to be embedded with the sheriff’s crisis intervention team.

“The pandemic made it even more clear that our community needs to focus on addressing mental health,” Harris said. “We know that many in our community will cope with severe mental illness at some point in their lives. All too often, residents with persistent mental health issues end up in our criminal justice system instead of in an appropriate healthcare setting. This effort to embed mental health professionals with our first responders will help divert those in crisis to the help they need and reduce their reliance on 9-1-1 distress calls.”

It’s the latest iteration of a program that began in Memphis following a 1987 incident in which police shot and killed a suicidal man who ran toward them.

“Law enforcement officers were faced with uncertainty about what exactly to do,” said Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis police major. “Our law enforcement officers often felt a lack of confidence.”

Cochran developed what later became known as the “Memphis Model” of crisis intervention.

It’s a model used in communities across the country and around the world.

The idea is to provide officers with special training to help them deescalate tense situations and steer people experiencing mental episodes away from jail and toward community resources that can help them.

“I think that’s very, very critical during a crisis they’re able to use their skills and their talents,” said Cochran.

Funding remains an issue for C.I.T. programs amid tight government budgets.

It’s also been challenging for researchers to measure the effectiveness of the programs since communities take different approaches.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, of the 1,000 people fatally killed by police in the U.S. in 2018, 25% had a mental illness.

It shows there’s still a lot of work to do.

But mental health leaders say it’s better than sending people who need help to places where they may not get it.

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