Inmate Mental-Health Needs More Acute Than Expected

Study Reveals More Than Half Have Been Enrolled in County's Behavioral Wellness Department

The Santa Barbara County Jail

Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Barbara County Jail

Of the 1,051 inmates locked up in Santa Barbara County Jail on October 20, 544 of them ​— ​or 52 percent ​— ​had been enrolled at some point as mental-health patients with the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness. Of those, 170 were currently enrolled. “I expected the numbers to be high, but that’s higher than even I expected,” said Behavioral Wellness boss Alice Gleghorn, who noted her department only treats people with serious to acute mental-health problems. “We don’t do mild to moderate.” Likewise, Gleghorn noted that 47 percent of the population had been enrolled at some point in substance-abuse treatment programs.

Gleghorn said 39 percent of the jail’s population reported having “co-occurring disorders,” meaning they struggled with both substance-abuse and mental-health issues seriously enough to have sought help from Behavioral Wellness at some time in the past. Of the 1,051 inmates, Gleghorn noted, no fewer than 626 sought help with one or both problems. Only 2 percent, however, were currently taking psychotropic medications prescribed by Gleghorn’s department.

Gleghorn and her staff dredged these numbers as part of the county’s broader commitment to a national program known as Stepping Up that’s designed to keep people with mental illness out of jail and get them into treatment. Gleghorn unveiled the data during a two-day retreat held in Santa Barbara earlier this month involving representatives of departments that deal with mentally ill people facing criminal charges, from 9-1-1 dispatchers to Sheriff Bill Brown himself.

As is frequently the case in such multi-agency efforts, this endeavor has given rise to some seriously opaque jargon: “Sequential Intersectional Mapping” is the process by which mentally ill people find themselves behind bars rather than in treatment. Gleghorn explained that involves many key decision points that affect the ultimate outcome. The point of such “mapping,” she said, is to determine which steps along the way have the most long-term impact on the largest number of mentally ill people. “The point is keeping people out of jail in the first place. After that, it’s to get them into treatment,” she said.

National studies clearly indicate that jails and prisons are disproportionately populated with mentally ill people; the same studies also demonstrate that mentally ill inmates tend to stay behind bars disproportionately longer. When Santa Barbara County completes this mapping, Gleghorn said, the next step is to devise a plan. “Are there any low-hanging fruit?” she asked. “Is there any low-cost approach?” The next Sequential Intersectional Mapping meeting takes place in January.

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