HOBSON CITY — Calhoun County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Jon Garlick told the crowd at a panel discussion focusing on mental health that Alabama needs about 2,400 medical beds for all the people in need of mental health treatment. He said there’s about 400.
In 1972, there were about 5,000, he said. And many of those were in long-term facilities like Bryce hospital in Tuscaloosa. The state needs about 1,000 of those spots today, according to the chief deputy.
Friday’s panel included seven other local professionals whose jobs involve mental health treatment. All of them agreed that serious improvements are needed in Alabama to adequately treat those with mental illness.
April Taylor came to the panel as a representative for Highland Health Systems in Anniston, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as services for people with developmental disabilities.
Taylor said the lack of beds comes as the result of declines in funding, which leads to staff shortages at places like Highland Health. And that means patients end up waiting longer.
“It could be a week that we could get you in or it could be a month,” she said.
The lack of resources leaves local law enforcement with a difficult decision for dealing with people who are in crisis or suicidal, Garlick said.
“I can leave you to die or I can arrest you for disorderly conduct,” he said.
Keeping patients with mental illness in jail is far from ideal, he said. But it does keep them from harming themselves or others until a bed can be found for them. The Calhoun County jail usually places about 10 to 12 inmates in crisis residential programs in the county, he said, but they usually have another 10 to 12 inmates needing that care.
Bobby Malone, an Anniston therapist, moderated the discussion Friday in the town’s City Hall. He said the lack of mental health resources goes beyond just those patients in crisis.
Many residents’ insurance don’t cover mental health treatment, he said, and even when people can pay for treatment, some areas like Calhoun County have a shortage of psychiatrists and patients often wait long periods before they can be seen.
Garlick added that studies have shown that untreated mental illness results in a negative statewide economic impact of about $4 billion a year.
Malone said that despite the bleakness of the topic, the discussion was needed.
“This has been exceptional,” he said closing the discussion. “We need to carry this out on the road.”