Numbers aren't my strong suit. Yet, there are some figures that get my attention.
This week, I encountered a number that I found a bit unsettling, and I suspect you might too. The revelation occurred while touring the Muscogee County Jail with one of my editors. There we met Paul Morris, the jail's health services administrator.
Morris said 850 out of the 1150 inmates at the jail are currently under medical care at the clinic, many receiving medicine for mental illness. That's about 74 percent of the jail population.
He said there are many people in jail who probably wouldn't be there if they had received the mental health care that they needed. The same is true for those locked up for drug offenses who just need treatment.
"Some of them are here for relatively minor offenses," Morris said. "A lot of them, we're detoxing them from drugs and alcohol. We have a case load of 30 people on any day that we're detoxing from drugs and alcohol."
The situation raises some serious questions about what's really happening with mental health and drug addiction in the community, as does the recent case of 59-year-old John Russell "Rusty" Houser and his recent shooting spree in Lafayette, La.
As I'm sure you're already aware, Houser is the son of the late Rembert Houser, who was Columbus' city tax commissioner from 1968 to 1984. He had a long history of local political activism, as well as quite a few apparent mental episodes.
Houser allegedly tried to hire a man to torch the law office of an attorney in the 1980s. In 2008, some family members sought protective orders because Houser exhibited "extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements," according to media reports. He even booby-trapped a Phenix City home 18 months ago.
How he managed to avoid jail is beyond me. Maybe it has to do with resources.
The Houser case shoved the nation's mental health problem to the forefront once again. Though Morris didn't address that case specifically, he did indicate a need for more soul searching as a community.
He said jail has become kind of a community hub, where people end up when their lives fall apart. They can't access adequate resources for their problems, so they end up behind bars.
"I see people who had their first schizophrenic breakdown at 18-years-old," Morris said. "They can't get into care but (when they're brought here) we'll get them on treatment."
I have a sister with a mental illness, and I know this is true. When she stops taking her medication, it's almost impossible to get her help unless we can prove she's a threat to herself or someone else. A mental health professional once told me, "She has the right to be mentally ill if she wants to."
There's something a little insane about a system that waits for a tragedy to occur before getting people into treatment. It's time to really address the problem.