Closing psychiatric hospitals will fill prisons with innocent people

These Tennessee sheriffs said many of those arrested waited for days in the emergency room for a bed at a state-run psychiatric hospital.

The closing of state-run mental hospitals has left county jails filled with people who shouldn’t be there, according to some Tennessee sheriffs.

Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin and Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said officers are often forced to arrest mentally ill patients in emergency rooms.

Many of those arrested waited days for a bed at a psychiatric hospital.

“I saw nine days in the hospital emergency room,” Fuller said.

Once admitted to the emergency room, suicidal patients are often placed on a mental health hold, meaning they cannot leave.

“You put them in a 10-by-10 room with just an exam table and a chair, and they’re stuck there for days that any sane person would act out,” Partin said.

Without insurance, patients must wait for a state mental hospital to open. And the sheriff says long waits often cause a domino effect that leads to arrests.

“In law enforcement, we don’t feel as though someone seeking mental health treatment is a criminal,” Fuller said.

Police reports and 911 calls reveal mental health crisis inside Tennessee emergency rooms.

Patient in mental health crisis arrested for disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest.

Nurses at Coffee County’s two hospitals call for help almost every day.

“Can we get the police here really quickly,” a nurse said in a 911 call from Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital in April. We have an angry mental patient.”

A nurse at Unity Hospital in Manchester said: “We have a mentally ill patient who has just assaulted a doctor and he is also trying to destroy our facility.”

The sheriff said many of the arrests involved patients in mental health custody who were trying to leave.

“He is now on the side of the road and we cannot get him back into the building,” said a Unity Hospital nurse.

Helen Moore told Scripps News Nashville for the first time about her four-day wait in the emergency room at Unity Hospital in Coffee County.

“I want to go home,” Moore said.

“And what were you told?” Scripps News Nashville asked.

“If I tried to go home, I would have been arrested,” Moore said.

“There was a bed,” Moore describes. There are no chairs, no windows, no TV, no radio, no magazines and no colors on the walls.”

She had suicidal thoughts and doctors determined she needed to go to a mental hospital. But she doesn’t have insurance.

“I was told they were waiting for a psychiatric unit to admit me and they didn’t know how long that would take or where,” Moore said.

Chief Partin saw the Scripps News Nashville report about Moore.

“There are a lot of people like Helen out there, especially in our part of the state,” Partin said.

Partin has seen many people like her restless and arrested.

“You put me in that room and you see me in action and arrested,” Partin said.

Scott Ward took his fiancee, Shannon Hickerson, to the emergency room during a mental health crisis.

“She was out of her mind,” Ward said. She didn’t know who she was or what was going on.” But instead of getting help, she was arrested for disorderly conduct.

“She was embarrassed to be in jail,” Ward said. She has never been arrested in her entire life.”

The nurses called for help because she was “screaming” and “unruly.” As a result, she had to spend two days in jail.

“When I spoke to her, she barely had any memories of prison,” Ward said. She was kind of in and out, wondering why she was lying on the concrete floor.”

Law enforcement says the state needs more mental health beds, especially for the uninsured.

“The number of beds has been cut back significantly and you have to wait,” Chief Fuller said.

The number of state-run psychiatric beds has dropped sharply since 1996. That year, state officials said there were 1,114 staffed public psychiatric beds. By 2006, this number had dropped to 980.

As of last year, this number had dropped to 577.

“A lot of our mental health hospitals have shut down,” Fuller said.

He has worked in law enforcement for more than 40 years. Fuller pointed to budget cuts years ago that forced public hospitals to close.

“The mental health situation we are facing in this state has gotten worse over the last 20 years,” Fuller said.

The state cited a pre-COVID report from 2019 that found “no need for new beds at the state’s Regional Mental Health Institutes.”

It found “additional resources”, especially more staff, were needed to combat worker shortages.

“The state doesn’t like me saying this,” Fuller said. They looked at me like I was insane, but unfortunately, the No. 1 mental health facility in the state of Tennessee is the county jail.”

These police chiefs agree that something needs to change.

“We cannot continue to lock these people up,” Partin said. A lot of them are not criminals. They’re just having a bad day.”

This story was originally published by Ben Hall at Scripps Nashville News.

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