Mentally ill Virginians who are in extremis need care — and need it quickly.
The state system designed to provide that care doesn’t always work quickly — or even, sometimes, at all.
But a change in that system will alleviate at least one shortcoming: For patients who are involuntarily committed to hospitals, the state will stop transporting them — in marked vehicles and sometimes handcuffed — in the backs of police cars and instead will move them via a private company contracted for the purpose.
Patients will get the help they need without additional traumatization from being made to feel they’ve broken the law only by being mentally ill.
Law enforcement personnel will be relieved of the duty of transporting patients, sometimes long distances, without their departments being recompensed for their efforts and without consideration for the fact that long periods away might leave their home jurisdictions short of police coverage.
When we addressed the issue previously in this space, we noted that several megatrends had converged to create this particular problem.
There is an increasing need for mental health care, including hospitalization.
Hospital space may be harder to come by, especially in many small communities, requiring transportation to larger, centralized hospitals.
Local law enforcement was tapped for the duty of driving these patients to the nearest facility where an open bed would be available — sometimes hours away. But the state would not refund local departments — usually sheriff’s offices — for overtime required to meet this mandate.
How big a problem was that for local law enforcement?
According to a national survey, such journeys consumed 21 percent of their staff time and took up an average of 10 percent of their budgets and 21 percent of staff time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported.
As a subtext to these trends was the serious problem that transporting non-criminal patients in squad cars often worsened the patients’ trauma. And that, in turn, could make them less likely to seek mental health help in the future, out of fear of being treated like criminals.
People in crisis don’t need additional terrors that might worsen their illness.
In 2017, a state study called for a solution — an alternative to transporting mental health patients by law enforcement.
Recently, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services announced that it will award a $7 million, two-year contract to a private firm to take non-criminal, non-dangerous patients to hospitals.
That’s supposed to relieve about half of the burden on local law enforcement agencies, according to the newspaper.
The private drivers will operate secure, unmarked vehicles, and they will be specially trained, the behavioral health department says.
Because patients at this level of emergency might become unpredictable (hence the earlier reliance on deputies and police), the training for private drivers includes how to support and supervise people in crisis, as well as instruction on human rights and crisis intervention.
Much will depend on the success of that training and on drivers’ professionalism and abilities in handling potentially sensitive situations.
But the change is a major step away from a practice that did not well serve either patients or local law enforcement.
Kudos to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services for implementing the change and to the General Assembly for funding it.