In the Dona Ana County Detention Center, more than 40 percent of the jail population is being treated for mental illness. But jails serving as mental health treatment facilities is not by design and there are regional efforts to address the number of mentally ill people in a criminal justice system designed to incarcerate, not to deliver mental health care.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mentally ill person going through a crisis or episode is more likely to encounter a police officer than they are to get the medical attention they actually need.
So they often end up in jail. Jamie Michael, director of Dona Ana County Health and Human Services Department, said, unfortunately, behaviors and symptoms of mental illness are often perceived as threats to public safety.
“A lot of times people with mental health conditions also abuse substances so we often have public intoxication. There are people that there thought processes are interrupted because of the mental health condition so they maybe shoplifting or just causing other kinds of disruptive behavior and they don’t tend to have a lot of other options so people tend to call 9/11- police officers come and are trying to make sure there is a safe place for the public it kicks off the string of events where people end up in our county jail.” Michael said.
Michaels is working along other regional stakeholders to establish other services for mentally ill people in the event of a crisis or episode. Michael said improving access to preventative services and changing social stigmas towards those seeking medical care is also key.
In 2007, New Mexico's mental health care system was rated 22nd nationally by Mental Health America.