About 60 people from the legal system, law enforcement and social service agencies in Lafayette who deal with the mentally ill are meeting to try to come up with better ways to address challenges posed by those who suffer from mental illness.

As is the case in much of the country, government-funded psychiatric care has fallen over the decades in Lafayette, often leaving the mentally ill and their families on their own except for community-based groups that try to fill the gaps. But many of those groups, often private sector nonprofits, are not necessarily acquainted with each other.

Last week, a group of people who regularly deal with mental illness — a judge, college professors, prosecutors, police, social workers, myriad nonprofits and a few for-profits — decided it was time to build a network to better coordinate their effort.

As the 60 or so people who attended exchange phone numbers and notes, they quickly learned that Lafayette and surrounding south Louisiana communities have more to offer than people thought.

“Lafayette has some really good resources, but they’re not linked up. They’re operating in silos; one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing,” said Holly Howat, executive director of the Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a group composed of officials from law enforcement, government and the judiciary.

Howat said the networking session, held at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office Public Safety Complex on West Willow Street, is part of a continuing series planned through the summer.

Their goals include building a network of a cross section of agencies that work with the homeless, finding affordable housing to keep the mentally ill off the streets and out of jail and providing better training for police officers faced with subduing those who might be in the grip of a psychotic episode.

Police

Patrol officers and jailers have struggled for years in dealing with the mentally ill.

In Lafayette, Iberia and St. Martin parishes at least three deaths in the past few years have involved police interacting with individuals with mental problems.

They include a 30-year-old man who died in March 2014 at a gas station on Pont Des Mouton Road in Lafayette, a 62-year-old man died in May 2011 while incarcerated in the Iberia Parish jail and a 32-year-old man this past December who died at his mother’s home in St. Martinville. All three had histories of mental illness.

Police arriving on a call — many times made by family members who are at their wits end — often are ill-prepared for what they have to deal with, said Ray Biggar, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor. Biggar said more training in “de-escalating” the situation is needed.

“If you have someone who’s paranoid, and the police officers roll up, they already think people are out to get them and they’re going to be hostile,” Biggar said.

A deadly encounter with police is relatively rare. However, there are plenty of inmates who suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and varying forms of schizophrenia.

According to Sheriff’s Office Corrections Director Rob Reardon, the number of inmates under psychiatric care who are incarcerated over the course of a year downtown increased 93 percent from 276 in 2011 to 532 in 2014.

It’s very expensive for local government to supply the psychotropic drugs, a cost that’s second only to AIDS medication, Reardon said. There’s also the cost of deputies providing around-the-clock surveillance of inmates placed on suicide watch.

They’re in jail because they get into trouble, many times for petty offenses. And once released many don’t stay released, often committing another crime because of the illness or because they’re homeless and trying to survive.

“They’ve become entangled in the criminal justice system,” Reardon said.

And jail’s not a place where the mentally ill get better, according to a report titled “Mental Health in Prisons” published in the 2016 edition of Handbook on Prisons.

“Mental health problems amongst prisoners are often complex and bound up with a combination of other issues,” the report states. Those issues include drug abuse and a range of mental problems among prisoners locked up in tight quarters.

“The jails are now the de facto psych wards,” said Howat, with the local Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

Psych beds down across U.S.

Decades ago the U.S. embarked on a “de-institutionalization” movement, shutting government-funded psychiatric hospitals. Louisiana ,too, shut down or greatly reduced hospital beds, including former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s almost complete shuttering of Central State Hospital in Pineville.

The drawdown in centralized psych beds and treatment was supposed to be offset with a widened community-based system run by nonprofits and others. The problem with that approach, experts said, is that much of the government funding never came.

Denver Nobles blames state and federal leaders, who preside over the richest economic system the world has ever known, for turning their backs on the ill.

Nobles, 66 and a Lafayette resident, has bipolar disorder and has become an advocate for more state-run services. He said Louisiana’s psychiatric care system is about to take another hit because of the state’s budget crisis.

“There are no state beds in the mental health system,” he said.

According to a 2010 study by five experts, including two long-serving sheriffs in Utah and Florida, in 1955 there was one psychiatric hospital bed for every 300 U.S. citizens. In 2005, the number was one bed for every 3,000.

Families

Judge Marilyn Castle, with the 15th Judicial District and a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, said she often sees defendants with mental problems in her criminal courts. Many times the defendant has no family to lean on.

“They need treatment,” Castle said, and they need to be “diverted out of the criminal justice system.”

“If you can get them stable, a lot of times their families come back,” she said.

Karen Dubois of Lafayette spends much of her time talking to families who are trying to get help for a sick loved one. She said she provides as much help as she can, and tries to let them know they’re not alone.

“Information and understanding helps them love that person again,” said Dubois, who runs the Lafayette chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dubois said she’s found that family members looking for help are best served by talking to others who have traveled the same road because they know the best doctors and counselors, and can offer suggestions on where to find other support services. She also invites them to support groups.

“They find out they’re not alone,” Dubois said.

Though she’s been immersed in the Lafayette area’s mental health world for years, Dubois said she learned at the networking session last week that other agencies have to offer. For instance, she talked to a representative from another nonprofit that can get psychiatric medicine in an emergency.

That kind of service, and knowing that it’s there, is vital, she said.

“There are a lot of times when we need these pieces of the puzzle so that we can be the best help to people who are walking through mental illness,” Dubois said.

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Three Lafayette-area nonprofits that can help

Local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)

(337) 654-2138

Acadiana Area Human Services District

337-262-4190

SMILE Community Action Agency

(337) 706-8241