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'More than twice the number of mentally ill are in Virginia jails than in hospitals' -- VB conference looks at the issue

Virginia author Pete Earley, father of an adult son with mental illness, gave an impassioned keynote speech on the second day of  "Cross Systems Collaboration between Legal & Mental Health Partners," a conference sponsored by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health Services, DBHS.

Earley, author of "Crazy -- A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness" (Berkley Books, 2006), and a former Washington Post reporter, recounted his family's struggle with the criminal justice system when his son, Kevin, would go off his medications. He noted that in Virginia there are 541 beds allotted for those with mental illness, when there are more than 3,000 inmates who have a serious mental illness -- bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. He said the average time a psychiatrist spends with them is 5 seconds. He said that he spends more on boarding his dog at a Washington-area kennel ($31 a day) than the government allots to homes for mentally ill residents (approx. $30 a day).

He enumerated the numbers of those turned away from care, more than 2,000 annually according to a UVA report, for lack of facilities; he noted the wait time in wealthy Fairfax County for someone in crisis to see someone -- 5 to 7 days.

"We've turned a mental health problem into a criminal problem," Earley said, calling for every aspect of community support services to be examined and to work in concert. In isolation, however good the programs -- Crisis Intervention Teams, drop-off centers, mental-health courts -- they don't work, he said, emphasizing the need for a continuum of care.

Earley emphasized the need for jobs and housing for the mentally ill and credited a Community Services Board case manager in Fairfax with saving his son's life by helping him become independent and see that he could contribute.

Ask yourself 'what can you do?', he said to a room packed with mental health and criminal justice professionals. "You be the stone-catchers," he said, making a Biblical reference to the opposite of stone-throwers. "Be the one that makes a difference."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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