May 14, 2015

We must do more on mental illness

By: Sen. Lena Taylor

I hear statistics every day in my job as a Senator. One statistic I just can’t seem to shake involves mental illness. Did you know that approximately one-half of all mental illnesses go untreated in America?

There’s no silver bullet to fix this issue. Certainly we need mental health care parity that goes hand in hand with physical health care. Yet, we cannot force everyone who needs it to seek help. This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately in light of the tragic officer-involved deaths throughout the country. Far too many of these deaths involve an interaction between a mentally ill individual and law enforcement. Whether it’s “suicide by cop” or a confrontation gone horribly awry such as was the case with Dontre Hamilton, we must as ourselves, “what can we do to prevent future unnecessary deaths?”

As the lead Senate author of Wisconsin’s first in the nation law that requires an independent investigation into officer-involved deaths, I’m proud our state took a bold step to recognize that in order for our community to have faith in our law enforcement, we need to know that when the unthinkable occurs, there will be an independent investigation. However, far too many of those investigation reports read the same way. The pattern more often than not involves a mentally ill individual or someone abusing alcohol or drugs who has a confrontation with law enforcement that results in a fatality. While every life is precious, it’s particularly troubling when we lose one of our talented young people of color.

The killing must stop.

We must do more.

Last week was children’s mental health awareness week. While we must do more to provide mental health services to all Wisconsinites, regardless of age, we also must do a better job of training law enforcement in how to properly interact with mentally ill individuals. Because far too many people with mental health challenges go untreated, far too often law enforcement become front line mental health workers. Often, those officers don’t have the proper training to adequately diffuse such an individual. Add a gun into the equation and a situation can go from a harmless call about a man sleeping in a public park to a fatal shooting in a matter of moments.

According to the US Census Bureau, law enforcement has more tragic outcomes with mentally ill individuals than the general public. Inversely, officers are more likely to be injured or killed by an individual with mental health challenges than the general public. Statistics like these led Memphis, Tennessee to develop Crisis Intervention Teams.

I applaud Milwaukee for recognizing this crisis. A city whose police officers received four hours of mental health training, will now receive 40 hours of training through a Crisis Intervention Team program. Not only will this improve public safety, but that of the officers as well.

As a member of the state budget committee, last week I introduced a budget motion to create a $250,000 block grant program for police departments throughout Wisconsin to better train their officers in the area of mental health. While my motion did not pass, we must be ever mindful to ensure that Dontre Hamilton and Tony Robinson’s deaths result in meaningful change.

Every week should be mental health awareness week.