Even with ample means, connections and determination, Pete Earley initially couldn’t force his unwilling son into treatment during a mental health breakdown in Virginia because he wasn’t obviously threatening “imminent danger” to anyone else. So when his son was jailed and charged with breaking and entering after being found taking a bubble bath in a stranger’s home during a subsequent mental health crisis, Earley grew angry.
“The law kept me from getting him help,” Earley said, “and then it wanted to punish him.”
Kevin Earley’s path through the complex and increasingly overlapping mental health and criminal justice systems later became the subject of Pete Earley’s best-selling book, “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.” It was the main topic of discussion when the former Washington Post reporter spoke Thursday night in downtown Baton Rouge as part of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s ongoing campaign to raise awareness about the need for improved mental health treatment in the capital region.
“We do have a serious problem here,” said Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish’s district attorney, during remarks prior to Earley’s speech. “We do not want to lock up or arrest or prosecute these people with mental issues.”
And yet, as Moore and others, including Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, acknowledged on Thursday night, that’s exactly what’s happening in Baton Rouge.
Although the issue is far from unique to the city, local officials are discussing ways to address the problem both short term and long term, Gautreaux said, particularly after the recent failure of a city-parish tax proposal that would have paid to build and operate a mental health center, along with other projects.
During his speech, Earley blamed today’s nationwide mental health treatment shortfall partially on massive cuts to government spending on treatment facilities and programs during the so-called “deinstitutionalization” of American psychiatric care. He also pointed to the “systematic” destruction of inpatient crisis service centers, among other reasons.
The result became a nation where prisons and jails are the default mental health asylums for many communities, Earley said.
Earley said estimates about the scope of mental illness among incarcerated people in Louisiana indicate there are about 17 times as many people with mental illness in jail and prison — or roughly 11,000 people — than there are total beds in the two remaining state psychiatric hospitals.
“The jails and prisons are the largest asylums in Louisiana,” Earley said.
But that shouldn’t be the case, Earley said, and he offered several suggestions for people who want to help foster change.
Educate yourself, your friends and your neighbors about mental illness, Earley said, then badger politicians with phone calls about the issues created by locking up those who need treatment for mental illnesses. Then convince others that making the move away from incarcerating mentally ill people toward offering them treatment saves money.
“It’s not only the moral thing to do,” Earley said. “It’s the right thing to do economically.”
A group of Baton Rouge area leaders will embark on a trip in the coming days to San Antonio, where the improvement of its mental health treatment system ended up saving taxpayers millions of dollars, the director of the program said during a speech in January that was the first event in BRAF’s ongoing mental health education campaign. Other communities, including Lafayette, have reported similar successes.
Earley, who has traveled the country advocating for people with mental illnesses, said efforts for change will be fruitless unless they are accompanied by the creation of sustainable community services to treat, transport and house people with mental illnesses and drug and alcohol addictions. Mental illness and drug addiction often accompany each other, Earley said, and those people often burden the criminal justice system, and thus taxpayers’ wallets, more than others.
“You’ve got to believe that everyone can get better,” Earley said.
A prime example would be his son — called “Mike” in his book but who is actually named Kevin — who, after several mental health breakdowns, ended up receiving the treatment he needed and landed a job as a counselor.
At one point, Pete Earley wondered if it would’ve been better if his son never would’ve been born.
“And now he’s a success story,” he said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.