It looks like the mental health needs of Las Cruces and southern New Mexico are being taken much more seriously than even a year ago, when I moved away.
There’s more public discussion and the politicians are making public statements.
Part of the focus is on whether a southern state mental hospital is feasible and a study is underway as I am writing. This study is supposed to be finalized by the beginning of the year by New Heights Group of Santa Fe, contracted by Doña Ana County.
But I am sure most police officers, who are often the first responders, would be the first to say “We’ve had all the studies we can stand.” I would have to agree. (I also know studies are often done in preparation to request money for projects.)
Citing statistics on the numbers of people in jail who are mentally ill or wandering the streets homeless has been done over and over — and this is in every city. This is a national problem, it needs a national response. And if communities and politicians come together on a smaller level, the pressure is on, and it needs to stay on, for change to occur.
The shameful conditions that many of the chronically mentally ill face are hidden in society, including in Las Cruces. How many people have seen the inside of a jail cell, other than in a movie? It has been suggested that upward of 50 percent of people in jails have a mental disorder, and I think that number is small.
I recently received an email from someone who said, “I am sure medications do sufficiently and efficiently numb patients and inmates, but I have seen many chronically mentally ill patients recover if they are given a pathway to recovery.” OK. Does that pathway start with placing a psychotic or delusional person in a hospital bed or a jail cell?
I wish public tours could be allowed in a county jail.
Currently, I see patients in a hospital ER and also in a county jail, where I am contracted to do mental health assessments. The lines are blurred sometimes about where care is better. The large jail I work at happens to have a sheriff who has mandated that every correctional officer receive mental health training. This has resulted in a humane environment in the starkest of conditions.
What do I mean by stark conditions? To start with, it means a hard jail cot and an orange jumpsuit. Then, because of the inability to closely monitor suicidal inmates, many are placed on five-minute watches. This means being stripped down, with only a wrap-around blanket. (They’re referred to as burritos in New Mexico).
Suicide watches are wrenching to witness, but it is the safest way possible in that environment. In a hospital, the person would be fully dressed, maybe with a “sitter.”
The charges that bring many of the mentally ill to jail include trespassing or disturbing the peace. Police officers get flak for taking them there, but at least they know they won’t be turned away.
We’ve allowed our jails to be our mental hospitals and the empathy and kindness I’ve witnessed by correctional and law officers is sometimes equally matched to the indifference and stigma seen in the least likely expected place — in a hospital ER.
But that doesn’t make it OK.
My wonderful friend Rachel Martinez and I will laugh about the stories we shared about working in the psych units in the old jail, downtown Albuquerque, years ago. And then we get really serious, and wonder why we are still in jails.
We’re psychiatric nurses, and we go to where our patients are.
Pamela Field is a former NAMI-Dac president and is a psychiatric nurse living in Tucson, Arizona. She can be reached at email@example.com.