Scott: Mental health ‘crisis is escalating’

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a press conference. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger.org
BURLINGTON — Gov. Phil Scott promised Tuesday a plan to improve mental health services to alleviate statewide system pressures and reduce violent incidents in downtown Burlington.

The governor said human services officials, hospitals and doctors have taken an “all hands on deck approach’’ and are working to come up with ways to better provide services to the mentally ill. Scott said he would present proposals in his January address to lawmakers.

“This is a crisis that is escalating,” Scott said, referring to the problems in Burlington and demands for more services across Vermont.

For years, particularly since the closing of the Vermont State Hospital following Tropical Storm Irene, mental health services have been stretched, with some patients waiting in hospital emergency rooms for help.

Scott said he is leery of simply pumping more money into current mental health services until experts can determine where resources are needed. He suggested possible ideas including opening a crisis center for patients who would otherwise be sent to hospital emergency rooms or perhaps adding more mental health caseworkers to the system.

“We’re not taking this lightly … we have to try something,” Scott said. “Clearly what we’re doing now is not working.” He said the mental health challenge, like the opioid crisis, is a nationwide problem.

The governor’s comments came in the wake of recent violent incidents in the Queen City downtown, including at City Hall Park and on the Church Street Marketplace, some involving people with mental health issues. The most recent incident was last weekend, when a police officer was cut taking away a knife from a transient. There was a fatal stabbing on the marketplace in March, numerous fights and assaults involving people whose attorneys and police agree have mental health issues.

City officials and residents have debated whether the problem is worse because of a lack of mental health resources or if the courts need to crack down more — or both. Mayor Miro Weinberger and Police Chief Brandon del Pozo criticized the courts Monday for releasing the suspect who is a repeat offender.

“It is unacceptable that someone who has been arrested 20 times in 10 months, sometimes for violent crimes, and has repeatedly violated his conditions of release, was in a position to threaten the public and harm a police officer this past Saturday,” the mayor said.

In a statement, Weinberger said mental health services needed a boost. “The City will continue to work toward a system where there are appropriate consequences for violent crimes, and where people with mental health disorders all get the right treatment at the right place at the right time,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday, the mayor said the state needs to do more to support mental health programs. Scott officials maintain they have been actively working on the issue and are “close” to coming up with some proposals.

“It’s a major challenge,” Weinberger said. “I appreciate they’re embracing that challenge.”

Unlike del Pozo and Weinberger, Scott would not criticize the courts on Tuesday, saying only there “may need to be a better determination” on some of the cases, but he would not endorse changes to the state’s bail laws, which require bail be set to assure a defendant’s appearance in court, not as a way to hold them in jail. Scott quoted his predecessor, Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said that on a daily basis courts are faced with the challenge of determining who must be detained and who can be let go, ultimately deciding “who are we afraid of and who are we mad at.”

Del Pozo has called for more enforcement authority, including a city ordinance that would make it a crime to not pay civil tickets issued for violations like public drunkenness and urination, issues the chief said affect the quality of life in the city. Critics of the new ordinance say more effort should be made to address poverty, substance abuse and mental health issues as the root causes.

Scott likened the current mental health challenge to the opioid crisis, saying the same approach was needed: to identify the problem and what programs work, such as setting up more treatment options to reduce heroin and prescription pill drug use, and putting resources into those areas.

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