Mental health is a growing issue in Sampson County and throughout the state, as the perceived shortage of treatment options contribute to a negative cycle of recidivism that costs sick individuals, their families and taxpayers alike.
“You would be surprised at how many mental health inmates we have,” said Dee Bryant, a nurse at the Sampson County Detention Center. “A lot of our crime rate is related to mental health issues. There is no place for these people to go. It is a revolving door. They come in and out, just like you go to the bank or church. They have no place to go.”
Bryant said inmates come in, are placed on medication, stay until their trial date and then they are discharged. Often, it is not the last time the inmate will be seen at the Detention Center.
Studies estimate up to 20 percent of the country’s jail and prison inmates suffer serious mental illness. That means about 3,400 people suffering mental illnesses are stuck in North Carolina jails built to hold those charged with crimes for only a short time.
N.C. Rep. William Brisson said that, even with tight state budgets, he believes legislators have tried to make improvements with mental health. The key is receiving treatment.
“They’re not getting any treatment … because it is on a voluntary system,” said Brisson. “We have got to go to an involuntary (system). Most of the folks are in a circle and we’re dealing with the same people. We can get them back in and get them on their medication. If we can keep them on their medication and it’s taken correctly, then they stay out.”
However, many times it just does not work that way, and the Sheriff’s Office, for one reason or another, is called to intervene. Law enforcement and jail are by no means a cure, law enforcement officials say, taking time, tax money and resources to tend to an issue without solving it. Emergency rooms are also constantly confronted with mental health care situations, even though they are not staffed to meet the specific needs of mentally ill patients.
“They’re right back to the county sheriff, the Emergency Room … we’ve got them in the circle,” Brisson said. “What’s happening in the meantime is we’re spending too many dollars on that patient at that hospital and through Medicaid, without treatment. When we’re allowing patients to be held over at the hospital for 9 to 13 days and Medicaid is paying for it — there is absolutely no treatment going on because medical doctors do not treat a mental patient.”
“We’ve got all these programs there for them to go to, but they’re not going.”
N.C. Rep. Larry Bell said the problem dates back to people began being taken out of institutions amidst mental health reform more than a decade ago. N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson agreed.
“A lot of them got sent back to their local communities and they’re here,” said Bell. “There is no one to give them the kind of treatment they need because they have left the places where they were getting treatment. I know people hate for people to be institutionalized, but sometimes that’s the answer to it.”
The state’s mental health reform passed in October 2001 following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that more people be treated in the community instead of in institutions. From 2001 to 2011, the number of persons served at the state’s psychiatric hospitals declined significantly, while the number treated in the community went up.
Questions, however, have been raised about provider quality.
“It is a major problem in this state,” said Jackson, “and it is a revolving door. If you have a family member or someone with mental illness, drug abuse or alcohol abuse, it is a revolving door. There is no help, really. I think the problem started about 10 years ago when our state Legislature decided to change what we were doing. It has been snowballing ever since, to the point where there is, in all honesty, a lot of hopelessness out there today as far as getting any help.”
Jackson has served on the Mental Health and Youth Services Committee and, while he does not currently sit on that committee, he has kept abreast of the issues.
He said the Senate budget cut funding for ADAT (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment) centers, but he and others fought to keep the center, governed under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of State Operated Healthcare Facilities. The House was able to put funding for the centers back in, he noted.
“Those are some of the best centers I know of to send people to get help,” said Jackson, noting Walter B. Jones, an 80-bed facility that serves Sampson and numerous other counties. However, it is located in Greenville.
North Carolina has just 850 beds in its mental hospitals across the state.
Local officials, including Ken Jones, CEO for Eastpointe, said while there are hurdles to cross when talking issues of mental health, there are resources available for those who need them.
Eastpointe, as the local managed care organization for public behavioral healthcare for a dozen counties including Sampson, serves as the resource where someone can go to find information on receiving mental health, intellectual and developmental disability or substance abuse services. The Eastpointe staff offers services, makes referrals, schedules outpatient appointments or assists in crisis or emergency situations.
“Eastpointe is committed to bringing awareness of mental health issues to local citizens. We want people to know that help is available, treatment is effective and recovery is attainable,” said Jones. “Eastpointe is working to dispel the stigma that often prevents people from seeking help for mental health issues.”
He knows well that mental health issues are prevalent and contribute to a domino effect if not properly and continually treated.
“The ripple effect of an active substance abuser impacts the community, family and individual in physical, emotional and economic ways,” Jones said.
“It is a major issue and I don’t have an answer,” said Jackson. “But it is an issue that some of us are very concerned about and we are looking into it. We are trying to figure out a way to help.”
Eastpointe can be contacted at 1-800-913-6109, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If there is a crisis, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, help is available without an appointment at CommWell Health, 306 Beaman St., Clinton.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.