Are mental health systems failing patients?

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Published: Jul 30 2012 08:00:00 PM EDT   Updated On: Aug 01 2012 06:14:07 AM EDT
PERKASIE, Pa. -

When police shot and killed a mentally ill man earlier this summer in Sellersville, who failed him? Was it the cops or the rest of us?

The Bucks Co. prosecutor believes the state of Pennsylvania has turned its back on the mentally ill, leaving police to pick up the slack -- and putting all of us at risk.

Mike Marino Jr. looked like the kid next door. But he was troubled.

The day last month he attacked a Perkasie police officer -- one who would shoot and kill him -- Marino was squatting in an abandoned warehouse in Sellersville. He was off his medication and high on drugs.

In clearing the officer who pulled the trigger, Bucks Co. District Attorney Dave Heckler said society failed Marino.

"It would be to make the officer a scapegoat for society's choice to cut corners and hope for the best where the mentally ill are concerned," he said at a news conference Monday.

Mental health experts agree.

"That could be avoided," said Elsa Vazquez, who runs Bet-El Counseling in Bethlehem.

Vazquez said she struggles with the flood of mentally ill patients looking for help.

"They are diagnosed with depression, with anxiety, generalized anxiety, bi-polarism, schizophrenia," she said.

And Harrisburg is not helping. The new state budget cuts human services funding by 10 percent. The cuts come after facilities like Allentown State Hospital have closed, leaving patients looking for community-based services.

According to Vazquez, those services are either missing, or patients simply can't afford them.

"We are failing because we don't have the organizations, the funding, the facilities to help them," she said.

If you think this is someone else's problem, think again. Prosecutors say police are responding to a wave of crimes committed by the mentally ill, sometimes with deadly results.

"Because police have been dumped into this position, it's important that they be as sensitive as possible to who they're dealing with," said Heckler.

Vazquez said it goes beyond public safety. She believes we have a moral obligation to the mentally ill.

"They are human beings like we are, and they deserve a chance," she said.

The overall pot may be shrinking, but the state is about to launch a pilot program giving 20 counties more flexibility in how they spend mental health money. It's unknown yet if any local counties will participate.