Our mental health system is broken, plain and simple.

Anybody who has worked in or near local law enforcement during the past few decades will say roughly the same thing if asked about our nation’s care for people who struggle with mental illness: the system is dysfunctional at best.

And why would people who work in our country’s legal system have authority to speak on treatment of people with mental illnesses. Well, because during the past half century, they have become de-facto operators of warehouses for people with mental illnesses.

It’s a shift that began in the 1960s with the Community Mental Health Act, legislation that began dismantling the nationwide array of state mental institutions. That law envisioned the launch of thousands of community mental health centers, but funding for such a revolution in the mental health treatment system never came to fruition.

Instead, police have become the go-to intervention for folks in the throes of a mental health crisis. Not because law enforcement officers are the best answer to such crises, but because our mental health system simply isn’t structured to keep people from falling into crisis, or to treat them when they do.

Police are called to intervene when people spiral out of control, and systemic deficiencies often leave officers only one place to take people they encounter: jail.

It’s an imperfect answer to an inadequate system. It has turned our jails into warehouses for folks with mental illnesses. That is a fact. An ugly one borne out in statistics.

As many as 80 percent of people incarcerated in local jails have a history of some mental illness. About a quarter suffer from severe mental illness. In rural counties 33 percent of people held in local jails have a severe mental illness. And records compiled by the Record-Eagle show the leading cause of death in local jails in Michigan is suicide. Suicide.

That’s why we were encouraged in early 2020 when our state’s top political, judicial and law enforcement officials released a report generated by months of hearings to discuss solutions to address the systemic dysfunction. They followed up with several recommended reforms, including one that supports efforts and programs to divert people with mental illness from jails.

The task force specifically describes the type of systemic restructuring proposed by a number of advocates in our own community who are petitioning state and local government officials to fund a mental health crisis center. The local group, which includes an array of law enforcement, mental health and social service leaders and advocates, hopes part of an $18 million windfall dropped into Grand Traverse County commissioners’ laps by recent federal stimulus bills could help launch the local effort.

We’re glad local groups aren’t waiting for state officials to enact needed systemic reforms. Yet, we’re also disappointed our state and national leaders aren’t moving more quickly to address the dysfunction on a broader scale.

The conversion of our jails into mental health institutions of last resort was catalyzed by a national policy shift followed by dozens of state-level failures.

It’s the kind of problem that only will be effectively addressed by similarly broad reforms, reconstruction backed by federal and state funding.

Systemic dysfunction simply can’t be solved by thousands of communities acting alone.

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