Another View: Mental health should be high on list of essentials

From the Sacramento Bee, December 27, 2009

Thomas C. Gagen is CEO of Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento

It was with great interest that I read “Mental-illness cases test cops,” (Our Region, Dec. 13). I fully agree that law enforcement staff and individuals with mental health needs are at risk. Our community should also understand that because of budget cuts imposed by our elected county officials, our health care providers – and every member of this community – are at great risk.

Providing much-needed urgent acute psychiatric care without appropriate resources is an extreme disservice to care providers, law enforcement and the individuals requiring psychiatric care. These individuals are our families, neighbors and friends. Just as with other health issues, mental illness can be chronic, controlled and monitored over time with few side effects, or it can be acute and require immediate response. It is the latter that your article reports is a risk to law enforcement.

It doesn’t matter if police receive intense training for six hours, 13 hours or even 40 hours – it is not enough. We need the appropriate resources allocated to serve the mental health needs of our community.

However, I am more concerned about the health care providers in our local emergency departments and our other patients. Hospital emergency rooms are not physically designed or equipped to handle psychotic or violent individuals. In reality, they are far less equipped than law enforcement.

Since the unprecedented closure of county services for the mentally ill, our own hospital employees are regularly experiencing tense, sometimes dangerous and often physical encounters with individuals suffering acute mental health issues.

I am most distressed by the lack of concern that our community has shown about the county’s mental health cuts. Fifty psychiatric beds were closed at the Sacramento County-funded psychiatric hospital. The Psychiatric Crisis Stabilization Unit has been closed. Our Sacramento County supervisors, and even some members of the public, seem to think it is OK to abandon people with mental health needs. Budget cuts may currently be necessary, but it’s not OK to cut services that protect the community from injury and even death.

No one argues that the county budget is a mess, but one of the reasons we have local government is to provide certain essential services – such as services for those with mental health needs. Our elected officials can no longer ignore this issue; they should act now to find funding for this crisis situation.