Rural southern AZ experiencing a crisis in mental health care

Crisis in mental care, lack of treatment costing taxpayers

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - There’s a crisis in mental health care in rural counties all over the country, and that crisis is felt in southern Arizona.

Cochise County is a perfect example. Only two psychiatrists practice in the entire county that is home to 125,000 people, and there's no mental health facility.

Dr. James Reed is one of the two psychiatrists, and he says “It’s as if we got a fire going that we can’t put out.”

He says he's had 64 new people asking for appointments in the last two months, and he can't help everyone who asks for it.

He's worked in Sierra Vista for 35 years, and says the need for mental health help is greater now than ever. "It's so much worse now. I don't know what it is, if it's a consequence of our society and the direction it's going. I just can't put my finger on it," according to Reed.

Reed still works 60 to 70 hours a week, and travels to Safford one or two days a month to see patients.

Experts say the reason for the doctor shortage is mostly money - the average debt for a doctor after medical school is $170,000 according to the American Medical Student Association. It’s difficult to make enough money in rural areas to repay all that money.

While patients can drive to Tucson a few times to see doctors for most physical issues, that's not practical with mental issues. Because psychiatrists often treat patients consistently for months or years.

For people in a crisis situation, there truly is no place to go. I checked with Canyon Vista Medical Center the big hospital in Sierra Vista. They don't have a psychiatrist on staff.

The reality is many people end up inside the Cochise County jail. The Sheriff’s Office has no choice but to put some mentally ill people in this facility.

“We have people in there that really shouldn’t be in there,” said Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels. He says many of the 911 calls coming into his dispatch center involve people with mental issues, but he wishes jail weren’t a first or even second option. "These people need special help that I can’t provide to them. it’s almost a misjustice to have them in our jail. Unfortunately there’s no other place to put them.”

Putting them in jail costs county taxpayers major money.

Inside the walls of the Cochise County jail are six special handling cells built originally for the worst criminal offenders.

Now, the sheriff told me, they’re always filled with people with mental health issues.

The first day in jail for each inmate costs $318, every additional day is $61.

I looked through the numbers - those costs pale in comparison to the amount the county pays for court cases involving the mentally ill.

Cochise County spent $291,000 last fiscal year trying to help people with mental health issues become competent to stand trial. And over the last nine years, the average is $220,000.

The sheriff says all that money would be better spent on normal police work. And he’s tried in vain to get the attention of state lawmakers to put money and resources towards a mental health facility.

“We can’t wave any harder. Our arms are sore. We’ve waved so much. We’ve talked so much about it, it would change the whole spectrum of what we’re dealing with when it comes to mental health,” Dannels said.

Dr. Reed worries about the future. He knows there’s no guarantee people or things will get better, and people who need care will get it.

“In 16 months I’ll be 70 years old, it’s always on my patient’s minds when I’m going to retire, and they’re worried.”

I reached out to the Canyon Vista Medical Center to ask about their situation. Why they don’t have a psychiatrist and what they do with patients who need help, but they refused to speak about the issue.

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