When People With Mental Illnesses Go To The Hospital, Sometimes They End Up In Jail

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
Portland, Ore. June 18, 2019 4 p.m.

Hospitals need to change how they deal with people who are suffering from mental illnesses when they turn up at the emergency room, according to a report out Tuesday from Disability Rights Oregon.

The nonprofit looked at one year’s worth of trespass arrests made by the Portland Police at six Portland hospitals. Attorney Sarah Radcliffe says they found 142 trespass arrests in one year.

Sarah Radcliffe, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon’s Mental Health Rights Project, inside her office.

Sarah Radcliffe, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon’s Mental Health Rights Project, inside her office.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra / OPB

“These are people who’re looking for help who showed up at the hospital thinking that this is the place where they could get help and instead of getting help, they get arrested,” said Radcliffe.

The people were arrested after hospital staff said they couldn’t be treated and then called the police because they wouldn’t leave. Sometimes the people wouldn’t leave because it was cold and they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Other times, a jail cot and three meals a day was preferable to life on the street, according to the report.


Disability Rights Oregon recommends an overhaul of hospital trespass policies and the creation of non-law enforcement response teams to connect people to services.

“You know, when you have someone that doesn’t need to be in the hospital but doesn’t have any place to go, maybe has some unmet health care needs, some housing needs, that they could get connected to some services, rather than ending up in jail,” said Radcliffe.

Related: Oregon Lawmakers Tout Local Mental Health Programs, But Cuts Might Be Coming

The report also called for increased investment in long-term solutions to mental illness — like supportive housing and more mental health care.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems issued a statement saying caregivers treat everyone with compassion, often under stressful circumstances. And it said that hospital security teams are trained to deescalate tense situations to maintain a healing environment.

“Oregon’s 62 community hospitals work hard to create a safe and healing environment for patients, their families and friends, and employees,” said the association.

“Hospitals are committed to working with the community, including Disability Rights Oregon, to meet the needs of all who come in search of care and comfort. We look forward to future conversations that strive for collaborative solutions to this broader community situation.”