OPINION: A Compassionate Yet Aggressive Approach for Dealing with the City’s Severely Mentally Ill

Mental Illness in NYC & NYS and Kendra's Law. Credit: Mental Illness Policy Org

Mental Illness in NYC & NYS and Kendra’s Law. Credit: Mental Illness Policy Org

A Compassionate Yet Aggressive Approach for Dealing with the City’s Severely Mentally Ill

By Juan Carlos Polanco, Esq.

In light of yet another killing of a police officer at the hands of a victim of a severe mental illness last month, I called for a new approach for tackling a sensitive topic, the city’s increasing population of the severely mentally ill. The SMI population in New York includes those suffering from intense mental disorders requiring routine medicating to treat and maintain stability. Those untreated persons living with SMI pose a danger to themselves, family members, neighbors, first responders, and the public at large. We have seen the levels of untreated persons with SMI walking city streets reach alarming proportions.

A recent NY Post article puts the number of people suffering from mental illness at over 239,000 with about 92,000 New Yorkers with violent tendencies going untreated. This is a problem and it must be addressed aggressively AND with compassion.

There are no known cures for severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and several others. However, we have seen that with careful monitoring and use of effective public health policies, like Kendra’s Law and compulsory medication, an improvement in the lives of our fellow New Yorkers suffering from SMI.

The use of Kendra’s Law has done well to reduce the dangers posed to and by the SMI population. Some of the most brilliant minds have been at the forefront of this issue. Individuals such as DJ Jaffe, author of “Insane Consequences” and executive director of MentalIllness.org, whose research is at the foundation of this proposed approach.

I propose we go where Kendra’s Law doesn’t:

  • mandatory reporting by state prisons and hospitals to the city of newly released persons with SMI,
  • mandatory reporting of persons with SMI not taking medication,
  • immediate reinvestment in a SMI public education campaign and
  • funding for the 2,000 additional beds needed by our city psychiatric hospitals.

The new approach would have a five-prong solution:

  1. The State shall inform New York City when someone with an SMI, is released from any state run institution. In addition to telling us who, the state must also tell us where this individual will reside. By doing so, the city will maintain a registry only available to law enforcement and to the office of mental health and law enforcement. Too often, the NYPD and other first responders in their interaction with someone that is SMI ends in fatal result.
  2. Either the victim of the SMI or the officer who was merely sitting in a patrol car and loses her life because of an untreated victim SMI. This registry would alert the authorities by informing them that this is more than simply an emotional disturbed individual and assist our finest in the deescalating of an otherwise too often fatal interaction.
  3. The parents, guardian, spouse of the individual treated often is our first line of defense and continuously call law enforcement for assistance when their loved one fails to take their medications. Under the new plan they will become mandated reporters and as such receive training as to who to call, what to look for and provide them with any counseling they may need because of the daily pressures of caring for their loved ones.
  4. In addition, they will have access to an exclusive hotline where by actions will be taken to assist the SMI person including mandating testing to assure and individual qualifies to be covered under Kendra’s Law.
  5. Divert funding from Thrive NYC to a more SMI focused public education campaign and eliminate the shortage of over 2,000 beds. Take a percentage of the current 800 plus million dollar Thrive NYC project that attempts to treat mental wellness with more vigor than treating the SMI population and alleviate the 2,000-bed shortage we have in NYC.

If we put into place the above plan, we can reduce the dangers the SMI pose to themselves, first responders and others. It is a compassionate and holistic plan because it puts the victim of SMI at the forefront. By informing the city of the SMI individual, we can share this information with law enforcement so they’re better prepared to de-escalate confrontations with victims of SMI.

Clearly, this plan is raises important questions, such as:

First, is this even constitutional? There are constitutional concerns regarding privacy that will need to be overcome. We cannot stop ourselves from being proactive because of these questions. First, HIPAA allows for this mental illness information to be shared with the authorities when the individual is incapacitated or cannot make the decision on disclosure.

Second, doesn’t this give the SMI sufferer another layer of stigma?
We are always concerns with the stigma associated with SMI. However, this is a ridiculous reason not to consider this plan. The person in the throes of a psychotic episode who shoots an officer as she is simply sitting in a patrol vehicle or the schizophrenic who walks up to an innocent woman walking in Chelsea, takes out a blade and slashes her across her face, or the person who failed to take his medication before shoving a young woman into the path of an oncoming train could care less about stigma. Recently an FDNY EMT was killed because someone with SMI suddenly decides to steal her ambulance and runs her over in the process. We have to stop treating SMI with kid gloves and get aggressive about protecting the SMI populations, their family, friends, neighbors, our first responders, and our city.

Third, doesn’t this just give more work go our already overstretched and overburdened NYPD?

The NYPD already has the burden of responding the incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons and the SMI population. By informing our police on. We need to give our police officers the tools necessary to protect themselves, the public and the victims of SMI.

The Public Advocate’s office needs to be proactive in protecting all New Yorkers. I believe that this plan is compassionate and will alleviate the conditions facing the SMI community, their loved ones, first responders and the public.

Juan Carlos Polanco, Esq. is the Republican candidate for Public Advocate.

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