ST. MARTINVILLE, La. (AP) — The killing of a mentally ill man in his south Louisiana home during a struggle with sheriff's deputies last month appears to fit a troubling, tragic pattern. Michael Noel, 32, struggled for years to get treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia. The deputies who confronted Noel last month were carrying out a protective custody order so he could be involuntarily hospitalized. Experts see evidence suggesting the problem of deadly confrontations between law enforcement officers and people with mental illness has worsened as governments dismantle networks of health care services.
BEARING THE BURDEN
Advocates for the mentally ill say too many people who belong in mental health treatment wind up in jail cells instead.
A 2014 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center of Arlington, Virginia, estimates that 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness. The center estimates that the number of people with serious mental illness in jails and state prisons is roughly 10 times greater than those in state hospitals.
Mentally ill people also account for a disproportionate percentage of the people whom police officers encounter.
The Treatment Advocacy Center says severe mental illness is believed to be a factor in up to half of all deadly law enforcement encounters, while people with severe mental illness generate no less than 10 percent of calls for police service.
HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?
No one keeps track of how many people are killed and wounded by police each year, much less how many are mentally ill and whether the problem has been getting worse in recent years, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit formed to reduce barriers to treatment of mental illness.
A 2015 report by the center said official undercounting of fatal police shootings has received attention, but the role of severe mental illness has been "barely noted."
It noted that The Washington Post and The Guardian compiled databases suggesting that mental illness was involved in about one-quarter of the cases of people killed by police or in police custody. The Center's own 2013 review of academic journals, media reports and other sources agreed with "published speculation" that the mentally ill make up at least half of all people shot and killed by U.S. police.
When police kill someone with mental problems, it reflects a failure of the mental health system, said Laura Usher, crisis intervention training program manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
WHAT'S HAPPENED TO MENTAL HOSPITALS?
Although the U.S. population has doubled since the 1950s, the number of psychiatric beds has fallen more than 90 percent, the report said.
A 2012 report by the same group said that just between 2005 and 2010, the number of state hospital beds available for psychiatric patients fell from 50,509 nationwide to 43,318. That worked out to about 14.1 beds per 100,000 people — about the same level as in 1850.
Mental institutions had been overcrowded and psychiatric medicine became more effective. Both developments contributed to the philosophy that, when possible, people should be treated at home or in community centers rather than in overcrowded institutions.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Recommendations in the Treatment Advocacy Center's 2015 report:
—Establish a clear policy about use of deadly force and how to avoid using it.
—Programs to get help for people whose mental problems put them in the most frequent contact with police.
—Intensive training to teach police how to deal with mental patients.
—Team trained officers with mental health professionals for psychiatric emergency calls.
—Courts can order supervised treatment to make sure patients take medication and see therapists.
—Governments can open more mental treatment beds
—Governments can make involuntary hospitalization for mental illness less difficult.