Mental health advocates fear criminalization

One night in 2020, a stranger knocked on Christina Sparrock’s door. Frightened, she grabbed a knife. The stranger turned out to be a police officer conducting a wellness check.

For Sparrock, the incident put her in danger. And it demonstrated the strong divergence of response for people suffering from a medical condition like diabetes or cancer.

“They get a visiting nurse, but we as a person living with a mental health concern get the police,” Sparrock said.

New York officials are trying to address public safety and reduce violent incidents that sometimes involve people in a mental health crisis. But advocates for people with mental illness worry vulnerable people will be swept up.

“We’re just people. People in distress,” Sparrock said. “People with a medical condition like mental health.”

Sparrock was in Albany this week to participate in a forum for mental health care advocates meant to chart a way toward policies meant to benefit vulnerable people and away from measures they worry may be too coercive.

Like many people who have mental health needs, Sparrock said more is needed from New York officials to help those who are in crisis. The incident with the police could have been handled by a mentor who, instead of being arrmed ​​and banging on her door, could have taken her for ice cream, she said.

“We need more 24-7 clinics with mental health clinics on every corner like we have Starbucks and McDonald’s so when people can go get help before going to a hospital and sit in an ER and get re-traumatized in an ER,” Sparroack said .

Longtime mental health advocate Harvey Rosenthal is concerned with the recent focus on high-profile crimes are leading officials to take more coercive action against people with mental illnesses.

“I think politicians are afraid, and people are afraid,” Rosenthal said.

He’s worried the media coverage of murders involving people with mental illness has painted a broad brush, and unnecessarily stoked fear.

“When you look at a policy through that lens, it’s extremely disruptive,” he said.

Rosenthal is concerned about a proposed expansion of a law that requires people to receive mental health treatment through a court order known as Kendra’s Law.

“It’s not about forcing people into the same services that have already failed,” he said. “It’s about creating these new models and making that the response — not through the lens of they’re violent and we have to lock them up.”

Still, public safety has been a rising concern for voters. Polling has shown people feel less safe in their communities and incidents like the murder of Michelle Go last month have spurred calls for action.

gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams last month announced plans to implement efforts to deploy crisis intervention teams to the subway system in an effort to improve safety.

“Governor Hochul has made the development of a comprehensive behavioral health crisis system in New York State one of her administration’s key priorities, and in addition to landmark investments to improve psychiatric support for those in crisis, proposed modernizations of Kendra’s Law, including allowing physician testimony by video conference, will help ensure effective implementation,” said Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hayes. “We will work with the legislature this session on how best to keep New Yorkers safe.”

Hochul wants to spend $21 million a year for the “Safe Options Support” outreach teams, which have already led to additional resources and staff to the subway system in New York City. She is also backing $35 million for the coming budget as well as $60 million the following for the creation of the 988 behavorial crisis hotline.

And Hochul is backing 10,000 units of supportive housing for people who are living with mental illness and are in need of a stable place to live. The state is also planning to spend more than $100 million over the next five years for a dozen Intensive Crisis Stabilization Centers for people who are in a mental health crisis.

Advocates are hopeful solutions like supportive housing and peer mentorship program will be explored and put in place. And while the pandemic has highlighted concerns surrounding mental health, Sparrock said a broader understanding is needed.

“I think people understand it and it’s unfortunate that COVID is actually de-stygmatizing mental health,” she said, “but it’s not helping us de-criminalize mental health.”

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