Broken Promises

Guest Correspondence


I began my public service career as a police officer in the late 1970s. Back then, when we were called to respond to someone behaving in a delusional or psychotic manner, the individual would be transported to a regional state psychiatric hospital for diagnosis.

Under the supervision of a judge and doctor, if an individual was found to be a danger to themselves or others they would be admitted to the psychiatric hospital. Working with a case worker and a legal guardian, admitted patients were treated until stabilized before returning home. This approach was both compassionate and effective.

Flash forward. Over the past four decades, over 400,000 mental health beds have been eliminated in our country, including the 1,000 beds closed in nearby Arcadia, when the G. Pierce Woods hospital was closed in 2002. As these 400,000 mental health beds in our country were closed, the country has grown by over 100 million people. The promises made to replace old state psychiatric hospitals with robust community mental health programs have not been kept.

Public health is a basic legal responsibility of state government delivered through its counties. Florida is 49th in the entire country in terms of funding mental health programs. Florida’s main investment in mental health hospitals are at four “forensic facilities” (1,400 total beds) mostly reserved for those who have committed very serious felonies, as the state attempts to stabilize afflicted individuals to prepare them for their criminal trials. Seriously.

In Sarasota County, our police officers, EMS first responders, judges and even families have few stabilizing options for those facing a difficult mental health crisis that has not yet resulted in a serious felony.

Unfortunately, our jails and streets have become our de facto mental health and substance addiction wards, and a major reason chronic homelessness rose dramatically on the Gulf Coast since the G. Pierce Woods facility closed in 2002.

Recreating big state mental health hospitals is not the answer, but properly sized, properly staffed mental health facilities in therapeutic settings are essential to public safety and a civilized society.

That is why Sarasota is asking our county, regional and state leaders to come together to plan and fund adequate mental health facilities to properly respond to people in crisis. It is both the compassionate and financially responsible thing to do.

Tom Barwin is Sarasota City Manager. He welcomes comments sent to

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