Several Tennessee sheriffs, including Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin and Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, have raised concerns about the closure of state-run psychiatric hospitals, which they claim has resulted in an influx of individuals with mental health issues being incarcerated in county jails. According to the sheriffs, deputies are often compelled to arrest mental health patients who are waiting for a bed to open at a psychiatric hospital, sometimes spending days in hospital emergency rooms. The lack of available beds, particularly for those without insurance, has led to a domino effect that frequently ends in arrests.
Sheriffs Partin and Fuller emphasize that law enforcement does not view individuals seeking mental health treatment as criminals. However, due to the shortage of psychiatric beds, patients in the midst of a mental health crisis are often placed on a mental health hold in small, confined rooms within emergency departments. This confinement can lead to increased agitation and acting out, resulting in arrests for offenses such as disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest.
Nurses in Coffee County’s hospitals frequently call for police assistance when dealing with enraged or unruly mental health patients. The sheriffs argue that the reduction in state-run psychiatric beds over the years, from 1,114 in 1996 to 577 in 2020, has exacerbated the mental health crisis in Tennessee. They attribute this decline to budget cuts that led to the closure of public hospitals, leaving county jails as the de facto mental health facilities.
The sheriffs advocate for increased mental health resources, particularly more beds and staff, to address the growing demand. They believe that locking up individuals with mental health issues, many of whom are not criminals but simply experiencing a difficult period, is not a sustainable solution. The state’s Regional Mental Health Institutes, however, contend that additional resources, rather than new beds, are needed to combat worker shortages.