Crisis Response Is Too Little Too Late for People With Mental Illness

About a decade ago, I attended a symposium put on by my employer about the social determinants of health in Baltimore City. One of the presenters told a parable—it was one I hadn’t heard before, but I have since heard it applied to a number of social problems. I think it has particular relevance for the problems entrenched in our dysfunctional mental health care system.

The story goes: A group of campers are settling down by a riverbed when one of them sees a baby floating down the river. He jumps in the water to save the child. Just as he is climbing out, another baby floats downstream, and another rescuer jumps in. One baby after another is swept by the current, and all the campers jump in, frantically saving as many babies as they can. 

Even after grabbing passersby to join in the rescue effort, they are still outnumbered by the task. They save some, but not all. Finally, one of the men starts walking away. “Where are you going?” they ask. “You guys keep on rescuing. I’m going to look upstream to see who keeps throwing babies in the water.”

And that is a perfect description of what is happening with our mental illness care system and crisis response for people with mental illness. We read story after story about the deadly encounters between law enforcement and people in mental health crises. And then a flurry of solutions are offered: Defund the police! Train police officers how to deescalate a crisis. Send a social worker out with the police. 

Unfortunately, these solutions are the equivalent of diving in to save the baby. By the time law enforcement comes on the scene, our system has already failed the person in crisis multiple times. Police shouldn’t be expected to deal with the result of our failed mental health system. To fix the problem, we need to look upstream.

Family members of people with chronic, serious mental illness know what a feat it is to get consistent, effective care for their loved one. Trying to get an adult treatment who doesn’t want it is futile. In our country, a person has the right to refuse treatment, even if they are experiencing a psychosis that impairs their ability to make decisions about their medical care.

People seeking treatment for mental illness face a catch-22—a person may be deemed not sick enough to gain admission to a hospital, yet if that person commits a crime due to their illness, we say, “Why didn’t they ask for help?”

In truth, our system denies medical help for people with mental illness until they reach a crisis point. We have seen it again and again.  

Daniel Prude was released from the emergency room without medication or treatment only hours before his encounter with police. His family tried in vain to get him help. 

Ricardo Muñoz, who was killed by police, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. “He was sick,” Rulennis Muñoz said of her brother. “It’s not a crime to be sick.” His family had been trying to get him help for years. He was routinely in and out of hospitals, with little follow-up care in between. 

And there is this horrific story. According to the report, “In the month before she wielded a knife against her son, [the individual] had called the sheriff’s office seeking assistance with mental health problems.” She had been discharged from the hospital for mental health treatment 10 days earlier. This unspeakable tragedy could have been prevented.

We have to stop failing people with brain illness, their families and our communities. Crisis response for people with mental illness is not enough. More and more are barreling along the current, headed for tragedy. Advocates have put forth solutions. It’s time to go upstream and fix the root cause of the problem.