The county justice system has several programs in place to ensure arrested individuals with mental health issues receive the help they need, officials say.
“Such issues are most often identified at the prison or brought forward by police officers or defense attorneys,” said Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed. “Handling of such cases generally involves mental health evaluations and negotiations about appropriate resolutions. More serious and continuing cases engender the involvement of a forensic case manager and our mental health subcommittee.”
He said his office works closely with the courts, defense bar, prison, probation/parole and county mental health officials in order to ensure these individuals are helped.
“It’s the right thing to do, and promotes public safety,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we are seeing a rise, but we may be recognizing the issues better.”
Timothy Clawges, chief public defender, said there is a mutli-pronged solution to the problem that includes the health care system. “People fall through the cracks because the health care system delivery system is so poor and so fragmented, if we fix the health care system, we will go a long way toward fixing some of the criminal justice system issues,” he said.
“Many people wind up in a situation where they get arrested or they do something they normally wouldn’t have done, because the mental health part goes in the front end, in part because they can’t get services,” he said.
Dr. Dan Bledsoe, medical director of Emergency Services for the West Shore Hospital, said that in his more than 20 years in emergency medicine, lack of available bed space and services has always been a recurring problem.
“As a result of that, people having psychiatric problems wind up waiting in emergency departments to be admitted to psychiatric beds for long periods of time,” he said. “I’ve seen people wait five to seven days in the emergency room to get to inpatient psychiatric care.”
He said many times, these patients will not get the help or resources they need, or will wait long periods of time for that to occur.
“The emergency department is a very busy environment, it is constantly on the go, and it can be hard for those people to get the rest that they need and be matched to the psychiatric counseling and the resources that they might need or get ideally,” he said.
He said that at PinnacleHealth’s Harrisburg campus, an extra five-bed alcove dedicated to psychiatric issues was built into the wing, providing a safer, quieter environment for patients.
“But we find this unit is often full,” he said. “There is a chronic shortage of psychiatrists, there are difficulties on the inpatient side of psychiatry with reimbursement such that there is a shortage of beds because there are constant pressures from payers that review the necessity of hospitalization and so it is a very complicated equation to say what it is that you can do. Every department I know in the are struggles with this.”
He said both Cumberland/Perry and Dauphin County Crisis Intervention departments have dedicated staff to help get patients the services they need.