Printed on: January 10, 2013

Improve mental illness treatment rather than waiting for an arrest

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's decision to support a Department of Correction request for a 579-bed mental health facility is understandable. Idaho has done its prison personnel a disservice by making them primary caregivers for 2,136 inmates with mental health needs. An even more important discussion for lawmakers to have during the 2013 legislative session, however, is how to address the mentally ill who have not entered Idaho's prison system.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary has focused the nation on mental illness. Nowhere that does that conversation need to happen more than in Idaho. We have experienced what happens when expert advice is ignored and vital public safety budgets unwisely slashed.

In the summer of 2010, budget cuts resulted in 451 mentally ill Idahoans losing treatment. This occurred despite a warning from experts who said budget cuts would result in three outcomes:

More suicides.

More violent encounters with police.

More emergency room visits.

Just three months after his treatments ended, a Pocatello man, Gerald Durk Simpson, shot a stranger, INL employee Ryan Mitchell, in the back after he left a coffee shop. Two years later, in ruling Simpson could not be charged with a crime, a judge wrote, "He has continuously lacked and still lacks the capacity to make informed decisions about his care and treatment."

In the wake of the mass murders in Connecticut, Arizona, Virginia and Colorado, Idaho's policymakers ought to be asking these questions: As awful as it sounds, did we get lucky Simpson shot only one person? That he lurked outside a coffee shop instead of wandering into a school or movie theater?

Simpson lives in a mental hospital. Of that remaining 451, 48 went to the hospital, nine landed in jail and two committed suicide. The rest, presumably, are still out there. Some probably received treatment. Others are likely making it on their own.

Between 2009 and 2012, Idaho cut mental health funding by $10.2 million, or about half of what Otter wants to use as seed money to grease the fourth big business tax break since 2001. Because of that $10.2 million cut, Idaho forfeited $53 million in federal matching funds, a huge blow to the thin wall attempting to prevent a national tragedy from occurring here.

Lawmakers can't eliminate the possibility for catastrophe, but they can reduce the odds. Restore those cuts. Make sure everyone who truly needs help gets it. After all, Gerald Durk Simpson didn't shoot anybody while he had access to treatment.

This isn't guesswork. We know these cuts have burdened law enforcement and endangered citizens.

We know also that investments in health and safety improve us all and ensure the vast majority of Idaho's mentally ill population will never see the inside of that shiny new prison Otter wants to build.

Corey Taule