I-Team: Mental Illness Burdens Nevada's Legal System - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Mental Illness Burdens Nevada's Legal System

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Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. To examine these volatile issues, earlier this year, the I-Team launched an ongoing project called Guns of Nevada. At the center of each gun massacre is a story of the holes in the mental health system. Nevada ranks near the bottom when it comes to mental health services. You will find extensive information in The Mental Health Debate.

LAS VEGAS -- The front lines of the mental health problem can often be witnessed in the local courts. There's a revolving door of the mentally ill coming in and out of jail without any long-term treatment. The courts and mental health professionals see it as a time bomb for violence.

Many Wait in Valley Hospitals for Mental Health Services

On this day, a woman arrested for throwing rocks at a fire truck appears in court and screams obscenities at the judge. The public defender explains the woman's outburst as mental illness, leaving the judge to question what he should do.

"What do we do? Do we just release her back into the street?" Judge William Kephart said.

The Clark County Public Defender's Office reports that nearly one in five defendants who appear in court are mentally ill. For several minutes, the judge and public defender debate what, if anything, they can do to keep the woman off the streets.

The judge and public offender agree more services are needed to help the mentally ill.

Nevada lawmakers are currently debating this issue and how to pay for it. When it comes to mental health funding, Nevada finds itself in a familiar place, near the bottom of the list. The latest numbers from 2010 show Nevada spends $68 per resident. That's half the national average.

Nevada Ranks Toward Bottom in Mental Health Spending

"Beyond Medicaid, my budget provides additional funding for our state's most vulnerable citizens. It includes more support for autism and early intervention services, and piloting 24/7 mental health care in southern Nevada," Nevada's Gov. Brian Sandoval said.

But Sandoval denied a $1.5 million budget request to fund supportive housing for 150 mentally ill patients. Other states provide multiple doctors and clinical workers to track mental health patients. Nevada's plan for continuing mental care is still in the proposal stage.

"I think it's an interesting cultural question to as, why Nevada is a state that has less of a priority on spending?" Dr. Michelle Carro questions.

She leads UNLV's mental health clinic called The Practice. She said it is difficult when her students ask where to send their mentally ill patients for further help.

"I take a deep breath and I sigh and I say, 'I'm not sure where we can send them.' They look at me like, why not? And then I have to explain to them that the services in our state are weak and that you're going to have to tell your client to hang in there."

Hanging in there is exactly what the mentally disturbed woman in court will have to do. Judge Kephart concludes he has no choice but to release her because there is no where to send her.

"When she goes out and hurts somebody, or hurts someone else, or hurts you. And we'll say, 'oops, what did we do?'"

Detention Center Provides Mental Health Services at a Cost

The Nevada director of health services is in Carson City Monday testifying to state lawmakers. He tells the I-Team the mental health budget is not yet set in stone and there could be increases over the next few weeks. But those increases will pale in comparison to the $80 million in mental health spending Nevada cut since the recession began.

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