Several Tennessee sheriffs say that because of the closing of state-run psychiatric hospitals, county jails are filled with people seeking mental health treatment, Scripps News Nashville reports. Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin and Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said deputies are often forced to arrest mental health patients in emergency rooms. Many of those arrested waited days for a bed to open at a psychiatric hospital. "I've seen as high as nine days sitting in a hospital emergency room," Fuller said. Once admitted to the emergency room, suicidal patients are often placed on a mental health hold, meaning they cannot leave. "You put them in a 10-by-10 room with just an examination table and a chair, and they are stuck there for days — any sane person is going to act out," Partin said. If they lack insurance, the patients must wait for an opening at a state psychiatric hospital. Long wait times often trigger a domino effect that leads to arrests, sheriffs said.
Law enforcement said the state needs more mental health beds, especially for people without insurance. "The bed numbers have been cut dramatically, and you've got to wait," Fuller said. The number of state-run psychiatric beds has plummeted since 1996. That year, state officials said there were 1,114 public, staffed psychiatric beds. By 2006, the number had fallen to 980 and by 2022 it was down to 577. Fuller points to budget cuts years ago that closed public hospitals. "Our mental health situation that we are dealing with in this state has worsened over the last 20 years," Fuller said. The state cites a pre-COVID report from 2019 that found "there is not a need for new beds in the state's Regional Mental Health Institutes." It found there is a need for "additional resources," especially more staff to combat worker shortages. "The state doesn't like me to say this; they look at me like I've lost my mind, but the No. 1 mental health facility in the state of Tennessee, unfortunately, is the county jail," Fuller said. The sheriffs agreed something needs to change. "We cannot continue to lock these people up. A lot of them are not criminals. They're just having a bad day," Partin said.