The recent shooting of a homeless and mentally ill camper by the Albuquerque police is a reminder of the failure of the state’s behavioral health system, which leaves the fate of our most vulnerable relatives, friends and neighbors largely in the hands of law enforcement and the penal system. Because of the lack of appropriate resources in our communities, jails and prisons now function as our state’s primary psychiatric facilities. Depending on the study, estimates of the percentage of prisoners with severe psychiatric disorders range from 7 percent to 16 percent nationally. The Corrections Department recently reported even higher figures in New Mexico, with 25 percent of total prisoners needing treatment for serious mental illness on any given day. A 2012 Public Defender Department report states that of those persons shot by Albuquerque Police Department (APD) personnel over the two previous years, nearly 75 percent suffered from mental illness.
In the 2013 legislative session, the legislature passed a bill sponsored by Representative Rick Miera (D-11-Bernalillo) to establish community engagement teams under the auspices of the Department of Health, which runs the state’s only psychiatric hospital, to work with the homeless that are mentally ill as a measure to prevent standoffs like the one that took place in Albuquerque. Governor Susana Martinez vetoed this legislation because she wanted the Human Services Department (HSD) and the Interagency Behavioral Health Purchasing Collaborative — the same folks that dismantled the behavioral health system in communities throughout the state last June — to own this program. In her message explaining her veto, Governor Martinez stated that community engagement teams “have merit” and that she was directing the HSD “to develop draft guidelines for the implementation and use of these teams.” To date, the HSD has not published any guidelines, and not even one community engagement team pilot project is in place.
Following a visit to New Mexico last fall, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advised the director of the state’s Medical Assistance Division that 23 percent fewer consumers are receiving behavioral health services since the HSD’s transition of services to Arizona agencies, following an audit of 15 New Mexico agencies and referral of those providers by the HSD to the attorney general for investigation. The Martinez administration dismissed this finding as “simply inaccurate.” Last month, State Auditor Hector Balderas announced that his office found mismanagement in the HSD’s handling of the agency audit, the referrals and its payments to the Arizona providers. The Martinez administration’s response was that the state auditor’s report was “fraught with misstatements and inaccuracies.”
Since the 2013 legislative session, the NAMI and the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance met with families of consumers with serious mental illness for feedback on the community engagement team bill vetoed by the governor. The bill received overwhelming support, as these families expressed that they want someone to call instead of the police. AsAlbuquerque Journal reporter Joline Gutierrez Krueger wrote in her March 26 piece regarding her struggles with her own mentally ill and sometimes violent son, she is more afraid of what the police might do to her son than of what her son might do to her.
It’s time to be honest about the even greater mental health role that has been shifted to law enforcement under this administration’s dismantling of already fragile community behavioral health resources. It’s time for the administration to listen to the families of the severely mentally ill who want better training for police officers and, most importantly, someone else to call when a loved one has deteriorated to the point of being a danger to self or others. In addition, it’s time for New Mexicans to hold the current administration accountable not only for its failure to improve the state’s behavioral health system, but also for its failure to own up to the missteps of the HSD.
Submitted by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen (D-38-Dona Ana) and Patsy Romero, President of National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)-New Mexico