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Sheriffs: Closing mental hospitals fills jails with innocent people

​These Tennessee sheriffs say many of the people who have been arrested waited days in the ER for a bed to open at a state-run psychiatric hospital.
Sheriffs: Closing mental hospitals fills jails with innocent people
Posted at 1:22 PM, Oct 17, 2023

The closing of state-run psychiatric hospitals has filled county jails with people who should not be there, according to several Tennessee sheriffs.

Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin and Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said deputies are often forced to arrest mental health patients in emergency rooms.

Many of those arrested had been waiting days for a bed to open at a psychiatric hospital.

"I've seen as high as nine days sitting in a 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 examination table and a chair, and they are stuck there for days — any sane person is going to act out," Partin said.

If they do not have insurance, the patients must wait for an opening at a state psychiatric hospital. And the sheriffs said that long wait often triggers a domino effect that leads to arrests. 

"We do not, in law enforcement, feel like someone seeking mental health treatment is a criminal at all,"  Fuller said.

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

Patients in the midst of a mental health crisis are arrested for disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest.

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Nurses in Coffee County's two hospitals call for help almost daily.

"Can we get police officers here really quickly? We have an enraged psych patient," said a nurse in a 911 call from Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital in April.

"We've got a mental patient out here that's just assaulted the physician, and he's also trying to tear up our facility," said a nurse at Unity Hospital in Manchester in January.

The sheriffs said many of the arrests involve patients on a mental health hold who are simply trying to leave.

"He's currently on the side of the road, and we can't get him back in the building," said a nurse from Unity Hospital in July.

Helen Moore first told Scripps News Nashville how she waited four days inside the emergency room at Unity Hospital in Coffee County.

"I wanted to go home," Moore said.

"And what were you told?" asked Scripps News Nashville. 

"If I try to go home, I would be arrested," Moore said.

"There was a bed. There was no chair, no window, no television, no radio, no magazine and no color on the walls," Moore described.

She was suicidal, and doctors determined she needed to go to a psychiatric hospital. But she did not have insurance.

"I was told they were waiting for a psychiatric unit to accept me, and they didn't know how long that would be or where that would be," Moore said.

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Sheriff Partin saw Scripps News Nashville’s report on Moore.

"There's a lot of people like Helen out there, particularly in our part of the state," Partin said.

Partin has seen many like her get restless and get arrested.

"You put me in that room and you're going to see me act out and get arrested," Partin said.

Scott Ward brought his fiancee, Shannon Hickerson, to the ER during a mental health crisis.

"She was just out of it. She didn't know who she was or what was going on," Ward said. But instead of getting help, she was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"She was embarrassed about being in jail. She's never been arrested in her whole life," Ward said.

Nurses called for help because she was "yelling" and "unruly." As a result, she spent two days in jail.

"She doesn't hardly have any recollection of jail when I talk to her. She was kind of like in and out, wondering why she was on a concrete floor," Ward said.

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Law enforcement said the state needs more mental health beds, especially for people without insurance.

"The bed numbers have been cut dramatically, and you've got to wait," Sheriff Fuller said.

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

As of last year, it was down to 577.

"A lot of our mental health hospitals went away," Fuller said.

He has been in law enforcement for more than 40 years. Fuller points to budget cuts years ago that closed public hospitals.

"Our mental health situation that we are dealing with in this state has worsened over the last 20 years," Fuller said.

The state cites a pre-COVID report from 2019 that found "there is not a need for new beds in the state's Regional Mental Health Institutes."

It found there is a need for "additional resources," especially more staff to combat worker shortages.

"The state doesn't like me to say this; they look at me like I've lost my mind, but the No. 1 mental health facility in the state of Tennessee, unfortunately, is the county jail," Fuller said.

These sheriffs agreed something needs to change.

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

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

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