FULL STORY: El Paso's Mental Healthcare in Jeopardy

Monday, January 10, 2011 - 6:12pm

As people wonder about the mental health of the suspect in the mass Tucson shooting, El Paso city leaders may end their ties to our own mental healthcare programs, and the county isn't happy about it.

E Paso county commissioner Anna Perez just sent a letter to Mayor John Cook, saying she is disheartened that the city may duck out of its end of an agreement with the El Paso Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center. County leaders say now is not the time to be arguing over funding for mental healthcare.

"Most of those victims in that shooting in Arizona were just there because they were passing by," said local psychologist Richard Patterson. He said mental illness affects all of us.

"Random acts of violence, whether they're related to mental illness or not, can happen to any of us at any time," Patterson said.

Many of his clients get help from MHMR. And for most of them, it's the only help they can get.

"A lot of those folks just are going to get any help, so they're going to show up somewhere, whether it's hospital rooms or police cars," Patterson said.

"When you have untreated mental illness, sometimes violence can be a result of that," said MHMR CEO Gary Larcenaire.

Currently, the county, city, and University Medical Center all shell out at least $100,000 annually to MHMR. Larcenaire says they'll make do with whatever they can get, but doesn't ever want it to be too little, too late.

"The last thing we want to be accused of as the mental health authority is if some tragedy does strike our community, is that we weren't there," Larcenaire said.

City representative Steve Ortega says it isn't about the money. Instead, he wants one entity to be in charge for accountability, rather than sharing that burden.

"State law mandates the counties perform that function; it's not a city function," he said in a phone interview.

"It is our mandate; mental health is a county mandate, so let them go, and if you're not interested in playing, hit the door," county commissioner Dan Haggerty said. "We've got serious things to do."

Serious issues, that can have serious implications if abandoned.

"Here in El Paso we're really in danger of underestimating the impact of not taking care of these folks," Patterson said.

Ortega tells me council will vote on this tomorrow. County judge Veronica Escobar and county commissioner Sergio Lewis said they will be there to make a final plea.

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