Local News

Advocates Argue State's Mental Health System 'At Crisis Point'

Posted April 19, 2004 5:44 a.m. EDT

— Officials estimate that more than 1 million people in North Carolina need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse. Advocates said the system in place is well-intentioned, but simply overwhelmed. The violence is rare, but it shines a bright light on the breakdowns in mental health funding and organization.

There have been three recent cases where family members say they tried to get mental health treatment for the accused before someone was hurt.

Police say

Abdullah Shareef

of Cumberland County used two stolen vehicles to run down five people, killing one of them.

William Case

of Henderson County is charged with shooting two workers at an Employment Security Commission office, killing one.

Derek Haithcock

struggled with a police officer in a Raleigh parking lot before he collapsed. The medical examiner said he died from a cocaine overdose.

John Tote, executive director of the

Mental Health Association of North Carolina

, said the system is at a crisis point.

"Right now, the services are not there for most of the folks that we're going to see coming here over the next couple of years," he said.

With mental health reform transferring services away from state hospitals like Dorothea Dix, Tote said county agencies simply do not have the resources and crisis beds to meet the need. Over the past 10 years, the number of patients treated for mental illness doubled in North Carolina, yet the public funding increased only 12 percent.

Before his rampage, Shareef was briefly institionalized, but as with many patients, the responsibility of follow-up care was left to him.

"You're really rolling the dice," Tote said.

Mental health advocates stress that without more opportunities for intervention, the odds will only get worse.

"Whether it rises to the level of a violent incident or not, you're going to see people in need not being taken care of properly and that's the bottom line," Tote said.

Critics argue the mental health system's failures also impact law enforcement, EMS crews, and the court system. Advocates complain the problems rarely get noticed until somone gets hurt.