by Greg Hansch and Karen Ranus
In a recent American Statesman opinion piece, Austin Police Chief Acevedo identified mental illness as a potential factor in some of the six fatal police shootings this year. This suggestion challenges our community to take a closer look at the deeper underlying causes, as well as determine best solutions to address this issue.
Media reports suggest that in at least three of the six fatal shootings, the individual had expressed emotional distress or thoughts of self harm. Yet, studies indicate that individuals with mental illness are no more violent than the general population. Individuals with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it. We challenge our community to look for solutions, not to scapegoat mental illness as the cause in recent police shootings. We serve our community best when we are willing to dig deeper to address underlying causes and identify potential opportunities to improve our response.
Here is the bottom line: Texas is failing individuals and families who are affected by mental illness. Not only are they not receiving proper medical treatment, Texas refuses to accept federal Medicaid dollars which would ensure this vulnerable population receives the medical treatment needed to recover.
Our mental health system needs to continue to build capacity as the population grows, and to do that, it needs more adequate funding and a relentless focus on collaboration. Though recent legislation has resulted in increase of mental health funding, Texas is just beginning to climb out of the mental health funding cellar. Furthermore, though Texas leads the nation’s uninsured rate and uninsured population, a recent study found that nearly 300,000 Texans with mental health or substance abuse conditions could gain insurance coverage if Texas were to accept Medicaid expansion.
In light of recent developments in our community — such as the expansion of the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, the creation of a Psychiatric Emergency Department and the mandated 40 hours of mental health training every Austin Police Department cadet receives — the recent shootings involving mental health crisis force us to review our current approach and determine what more can be done.
Acevedo has initiated a “sanctity of life” initiative program focused on “de-escalating incidents instead of ramping them to levels in which require an officer to draw his or her gun.” We are looking forward to learning more details about this initiative, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) anticipates playing an active role in developing this type of initiative.
Educating the community is equally important, and the local affiliate, NAMI Austin, is currently working with the APD Crisis Intervention Team to develop and provide tools for family, friends, neighborhoods, workplaces and faith communities that can be used to avoid — or when necessary, prepare — for crisis situations.
Most importantly, we all must work together to end the stigma and discrimination of mental illnesses and create environments in which individuals, families and friends feel confident in speaking up when their loved ones are in distress and need help.
State and local leadership must ensure the mental health needs of Texas’ growing, diversifying population are being met. NAMI is committed to leveraging its partnerships at the state and local level with law enforcement, mental health providers, elected officials and the community at large to find solutions to address the issue of police shootings and to create communities in which all persons have access to mental health treatment needed for recovery.
Hansch is Texas public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Ranus is NAMI Austin’s executive director.