Nevada’s black eye on mental health care gets NYT spotlight

Nevada got some ink in the New York Times over the weekend we’d all probably rather it didn’t.

In a story spotlighting the once-suicidal David Theisen — one of an estimated 1,500 people who were bused out of the state rather than getting the much-needed mental health care treatment they needed — the newspaper of record put a human face to the scandal that erupted during the legislative session earlier this spring. Not that you would have noticed, what with so many legislators falling over themselves to take selfies with Nicolas Cage, who was on a political junket to get votes for a state subsidies program for filming in Nevada. You know, priorities.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened:

  • Between 2009 and 2012, Nevada cut 28 percent of its total mental health care budget — or roughly $80 million over five years — leaving many to seek help at emergency rooms. Earlier this year, the National Alliance on Mental Health gave Nevada a grade of D.
  • April 7, 2013: The Sacramento Bee publishes a feature on James Flavy Coy Brown, who had been bused to the California city from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas. He had spent 72 hours at the hospital before being loaded on a bus to a city in which he didn’t know a soul, had no money, and no resources to help himself.
  • A federal investigation is launched in April and it is discovered that an estimated 1,500 mental health care patients have been bused out of Nevada in recent years, including 500 to California (at least 100 of them in one year). Many of the patients are given little more than a bag full of crackers, maybe some medication, and a bus ticket. In fact, some of the patients have wound up lost. As many as 40 percent of those discharged from the state facility were sent to homeless shelters or bused out-of-state.
  • About a month after the story breaks, Nic Cage arrives at the Nevada Legislature to lobby for a filming incentive bill amounting to about $35 million, or about half of the monies slashed from mental health care budgets in recent years.
  • Some staff at Rawson-Neal were fired and Gov. Brian Sandoval pushed $30.4 million in additional funding for mental health care (including $2.1 million in funds for Rawson-Neal) through the Legislature. (NYT)

The New York Times story highlights the scandal and just how damaging deep cuts to mental health care in our state have been.

Mr. Theisen’s experience began when he and another homeless man tried to hitchhike across the Mojave Desert from Las Vegas to San Diego. They made it about 45 miles to the small town of Primm, little more than a cluster of casinos.

The two men, desperate and hungry, ordered a meal and then ran before the bill arrived. They did not make it. His friend was arrested, but Mr. Theisen went to a pay phone and called the authorities. “I told them I had a knife and was going to kill myself,” he said. “After the dine-and-dash, I just gave up.”

He begged not to be sent back onto the streets of Las Vegas, he said, and did not care where they shipped him. “They asked me what kind of work I had done, and I said I was a cook,” he said. “So some young woman said, ‘Well, there are a lot of restaurants in San Francisco.’ ”

Mr. Theisen said he eventually wound up at the Rawson-Neal facility, where he spent the night. The next morning, he said, his doctors sent him to a Greyhound station with seven sack lunches and a day’s medication for the 14-hour ride. He arrived with three lunches left and $30 on a food stamps card, and bounced from shelter to shelter until he managed to get a room in a downtown transients’ hotel.

Rumors of such journeys had become part of California homeless lore.

“In San Francisco, it’s been urban myth for decades that this sort of practice was going on,” Mr. Herrera said. “But this is the first instance that I am aware of where we have been able to document a state-supported and state-sanctioned effort.”

I can only hope that Theisen’s story helps humanize the faceless people who are effected by cuts to important social safety net programs, including mental health care services. If that doesn’t work, maybe Nicolas Cage can make a movie about it (while filming in Nevada for those lush tax breaks!).

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