“When is the war on the mentally ill going to stop?”
This was Tim Burchett’s question when he made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to denounce the state’s decision not to help fund a behavioral health urgent care unit (formerly known as the safety center).
Normally a fist-bumping jokester, the county mayor didn’t hide his anger over the Haslam administration’s failure to come through with the money to allow Knox County to divert mentally ill and addicted inmates from the jail population and steer them to treatment options. Burchett made multiple trips to Nashville to secure funding, and said he’d been led to believe the state would pony up some $2 million needed to make the center happen this year.
Knox County put $1 million aside for the facility several years ago, plus another $200,000 in this year’s budget. Mayor Madeline Rogero has set aside $200,000. That won’t be enough, but Burchett vowed to find the money and dismissed the explanation he was given for the administration’s decision.
“I was misled about that, and I’m very put out about it. I was told, ‘Mental health is a local issue.’ Well, dadgummit, then, why do we have a Department of Mental Health in the state of Tennessee?”
He said the largest mental health hospitals in the state are the Shelby County, Davidson County and Knox County jails, and didn’t dodge the question of whether denial of state funds amounts to a broken promise by Gov. Bill Haslam:
“Yes. I’m of the opinion it was – but regardless of the state’s partnership, we’re going to go ahead with it…”
Burchett said about half of mentally ill inmates are veterans and accused the governor of breaking his promise that funding would follow the patients after he shut down Lakeshore Institute in 2012.
“We closed down Lakeshore and everybody loves Lakeshore Park – but where are those people going? You drive under any major bridge in Knoxville, you’ll see the human cost.”
A couple of days after his talk show appearances, Burchett still hadn’t cooled off, and said he was offended that Haslam was pleading budget constraints while spending $8 million subsidizing the TV show “Nashville.”
“They pulled the rug out from under us. I don’t like it when they start explaining that they didn’t get as much money as they expected, but I see all these little projects getting funded. I spent 16 years in the Legislature, was on the Senate Finance Committee and chaired the Budget Subcommittee. I know the system and I don’t like hearing that crap. I know that taking care of the mentally ill’s not sexy like that miserable TV show – which has been cancelled, thank goodness – but when they talk about return on investment, I say, ‘What about investing in somebody not going to jail when what they need is treatment?’”
Former Attorney General Randy Nichols is working as special counsel to the sheriff on issues of mental illness, domestic violence and the prescription pill epidemic. He said the new unit will be staffed by nurse practitioners, a psychiatric nurse, with doctors available as needed. Inmates could stay up to three days to be stabilized and evaluated.
“The people we’re dealing with now get into trouble because they don’t take their prescribed meds and get into crisis. Rather than take them to jail, we can transport them to this center, get them back on their meds and keep them up to three days. From there, they can move on to another facility where we could keep them up to five days to get them sober and thinking clearly. The ultimate goal is to get them into permanent supportive housing, and our ultimate hope is to help them find some kind of work so they can be productive and stay out of jail.”
Burchett is still hoping for state support.
“We’ve probably got 400 people locked up right now suffering from mental illness. It’s a nightmare, and it’s costly. We’ve got to figure out a new way to do it.”
Gov. Bill Haslam’s office did not respond to a request for comment.