Lawmakers weigh shifting mental health emergency responses from police

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Rural communities could receive funding to shift responses to mental health emergencies from law enforcement to trained mental health professionals if two Senate bills pass.

The legislation would establish community grants to assist local governments with increasing crisis response programs and diverting people with mental health conditions from jails.

One bill would allow communities to create and expand more crisis intervention services, including hotlines, counseling, and mental health related emergency response calls. It is sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit. 

All communities are eligible for funding, but rural communities would receive priority. 

Chang said she has been talking with social workers and law enforcement offices across the state. She emphasized the importance of allowing trained mental health professionals to respond to emergency calls. 

“So many people who call for help aren’t necessarily getting the help they need,” Chang said. “It’s so important that we’re really using our taxpayer dollars wisely and making sure that people are directed to the appropriate services.” 

The program could mean that fewer of these calls would end in arrests, she said

“Last summer we started to work with others to think about how we can address the fact that we have so many people who have a mental health issue and are forced into interactions with the police,” Chang said. “Unfortunately, some people have gotten injured or killed.” 

One result of increased funding could be sending unarmed mental health professionals to respond to mental health related emergency calls, according to a press release from Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes. 

“I think the state could provide more tools to help deal with mental health emergencies instead of just tossing the issue on the backs of our already-overworked officers,” Outman said.

Outman sponsored another bill in the package that would create grants for local diversion programs.

That bill defines those as programs where an arrested individual with a behavioral health disorder is routed into treatment rather than into the criminal justice system. 

Providing such an alternative pipeline would allow law enforcement to focus on the legal matters they are trained and equipped for, Outman said. 

“Keeping people with mental health challenges in jail is expensive and over time has proven to be quite counterproductive,” Outman said. “These bills encourage and help fund alternative treatment options that direct people toward more appropriate care instead of just sending them to jail without addressing the underlying issue.”

Approximately 20% of the state’s prisoner population is enrolled in a mental health program, according to the Department of Corrections. Services range from temporary counseling to inpatient placements. 

This bill would directly impact Michigan jails rather than prisons, according to Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the department, which supports the legislation. But the prison system could benefit.

”We hope the effects down the road would be fewer people entering the prison system, which would only be a good thing,” Gautz said. 

 “We do want to see people with mental health issues diverted from the prison system.” 

The agency has spent just over $5 million on mental health in prisons during this fiscal year, according to department data. Its projected expenditures for the year are slightly over $50 million. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services receives an annual grant of approximately $13 million to fund the public mental health system. 

That department hasn’t taken a position, said Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the agency. 

Despite state funding, nearly 95% of individual mental health cases are handled through Medicaid, according to Robert Sheehan, the chief executive officer of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan. 

“There’s not much in the budget for people without Medicaid,” he said. 

Sheehan said there are currently around 325,000 Michigan residents who get service through the public mental health system. 

“We represent all the public mental health centers, and everything across the board is used a lot, from crisis services to support in the home,” Sheehan said. 

Priority for the funds from the legislation is in rural areas — counties without urbanized areas of at least 50,000 people. 

A state task force on jail and pretrial incarceration found that the percentage of people with mental illnesses in jails was particularly high in rural areas, Chang said.

Sheehan said the emphasis on rural areas is due to the response time of mobile crisis units, which are teams that provide immediate response to mental health crises across the state.

“There’s a workforce shortage in behavior health for psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and direct care workers,” Sheehan said. “The bills are needed in rural areas because they’re looking to fund mobile crisis units.

“In rural areas, if you send a team out they can be gone for the whole day in one visit,” he said. 

Sheehan said more funding could improve the response times and address shortages. 

“The public system in Michigan is one of the best in the country actually,” Sheehan said, “and these two bills close the financing gap.”

The bills passed in the Senate and await action in the House.

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