Thirty years ago, a Milwaukee County lawsuit helped start a nationwide revolution in mental health care, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Patients locked in psychiatric hospital wards were released to fend for themselves. Today, hundreds of today’s sickest patients suffer in the city’s most broken-down neighborhoods. When a sheriff’s deputy tried to get Larry Ellis back into the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex for treatment last October, the hospital turned him away. It was the last in a series of mental health care blunders that dogged Ellis from the time he was a boy.
Three weeks later, Ellis, 26, was shot and killed by police after he lunged at them with a knife. The ultimate irony: The officer who killed Ellis had just been trained to deal with people who have mental illness and are in crisis. A Journal Sentinel investigation found that Ellis was let down at each step along the way by people charged with caring for him – from the police officer who told his mother to “take him back to the ‘hood’ ” to caseworkers who placed him in dirty, dangerous apartments to doctors who repeatedly released him from the hospital and refused to admit him when he clearly was still dangerous. Outraged criminal justice and health care advocates say the case illustrates how Milwaukee County’s public mental health system is stretched so thin that it fails to provide protection for many of the desperately ill.