A terrible way to treat patients

Wake-Med Emergency Room Charge Nurse Kristi Blankenship works in one of four emergency room suites last week at the WakeMed Raleigh campus in Raleigh.
Wake-Med Emergency Room Charge Nurse Kristi Blankenship works in one of four emergency room suites last week at the WakeMed Raleigh campus in Raleigh.

So the N.C. legislature decided to protect workers, particularly health-care workers, by further criminalizing people with mental illness by making it a felony to assault them while they’re at work. Unbelievable. Assault convictions should be reserved for those with the capacity and intent to harm and injure someone.

The problem is creating an environment that makes violence more likely and proper care more difficult, not arresting our friends and loved ones deprived of appropriate care. The reason health-care workers are at risk is because the legislature has failed to provide the resources and community infrastructure necessary to prevent such risks. Taking away psychiatric beds has forced the mentally ill into emergency rooms that were never designed for their psychiatric care.

Hospitals, the criminal justice system and the streets have become the refugee camps of our time for many with serious mental illnesses. I’m seeing this even more now that I’m representing clients through the civil involuntary commitment process, which gives me a front row seat to the medical and legal “system” at work.

We can do better. There was a time when we did. I started at the Public Defender’s Office in 1986 and saw a pretty active revolving door in and out of the hospitals and jails. After Mecklenburg County instituted the Continuing Care Division, that door all but stopped and the people who needed care got it.

We’ve seen the reverse happen over the past 10 years locally and nationally. Steven Leifman, a Miami judge and national leader for true mental health reform has it right. He says we’ve not de-institutionalized the mental health system, we’ve trans-institutionalized it – moving people from therapeutic resources to jails.

These patients belong in treatment. I’ve worked in, and seen the success of, reforms like Drug Treatment Courts. I’ve seen the amazing benefits from modern psychiatric medicine, specialized counseling, and community support from N.A.M.I. (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and the Recovery Movement. I work with Crisis Intervention Training officers and deputies who know first-hand that people with mental illness don’t belong in jails and that treatment works.

All this law does is make the delivery of scarce health-care resources even more problematic. It also shifts the risk from health-care workers to law enforcement officers. This law twice punishes a mentally ill person – first by forcing treatment through the local ER instead of through dedicated psychiatric beds and second by the filing of felony charges against a mentally ill person for assaultive behavior that is not very likely to be knowing and intentional.

That is pouring salt on an exposed wound. And once in the criminal justice system, it becomes even harder to access services because of having the label “criminal.” If the resources aren’t there before you send them to courts and corrections, you won’t have them after.

In the end, legislators and other officials may find protection from incompetence, or even negligence, via sovereign immunity. But they aren’t protected from the truth, and the truth is this: This is a terrible law.

Ward is an assistant public defender for Mecklenburg County. Email: Robert.Ward@