This is a reflection on the four-part series “The Downward Spiral” from The Reader. Published between January and March 2023, it aimed to break down the complicated relationship between mental health and the criminal justice system in Omaha. Read parts one, two, three and four.

The morning I sat down to write my final thoughts on “The Downward Spiral” I got a phone call.

It was Mary Angus, a woman whose grandson suffers from severe mental illness and allegedly murdered two of his family members in August 2022. Mary’s story of a system failure ending in tragedy introduced readers to my series about the fraught relationship between Omaha’s mental health and criminal justice systems that took about months, many interviews and a few sleepless nights of writing to produce.

And now she was on the other end of the line — asking me for help.

Mary Angus stands inside her apartment on Dec. 16, 2022.

A family wanted to know where to send their son who had severe mental illness and developmental disabilities. They kept running into dead ends wherever they looked for help. The story sounded so similar to Mary’s grandson.

She wanted to know if I had any ideas.

The fact Mary, a lifelong mental health professional and advocate who also lives with bipolar disorder, reached out to me should tell people how few options there are — that as one source said this isn’t a system where people just slip through.

“It isn’t a crack,” said Tim Heller, a father whose son struggles with severe mental illness (SMI). “It’s a chasm.”

Tim Heller. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In short, we’re failing people. Twenty percent of the people in the Douglas County jail have a SMI. Once they’re out, they’re also more likely to come back. Their crimes are typically nonviolent, but because so many hospitals and treatment programs are at capacity and understaffed, they still end up in jail. If their mental health is bad enough, they wait an average of five months to get stabilized in Lincoln and sent back to Omaha for trial — costing people time and taxpayers millions.

And even if they can get treatment outside the criminal justice system, Medicaid reimbursements aren’t high enough to make most treatments financially feasible.

I can’t say where the blame lies. It is a complicated system. Part of the reason I wanted to write this final column is to say I barely scratched the surface despite reporting this off and on for the better part of a year. There are people and programs that should have had a stronger voice — legislators, philanthropists and more people with lived experience just to name a few. But after a while I started to realize solution was the same no matter who I talked to.

We need to invest more in mental health — a lot more.

There’s a lot of great programs working to solve gaps in Omaha’s mental system like Familiar Faces, Stepping Up and OPD’s mental health co-responders. But the demand is always greater. That stems from a historical disinvestment in mental health at the state level which we could start to solve if the Nebraska Legislature made assessing and funding its mental health system a top priority.

As I’ve shown through my series, it’s not hard to find examples of other places doing it better. Tucson and Denver were two cities that made big investments and are seeing huge savings — not to mention improvements in peoples’ lives. It’s not to say a solution in one area will always work elsewhere, but there’s plenty of families I’ve talked to who think it’s worth a shot.

Locally Douglas County has a huge opportunity in the form of $55 million to invest in mental health. Right now the plan is to build one facility both the jail and community mental health center could use, though that’s not set in stone. I’d encourage people to contact their Douglas County Commissioner and figure out how they want to see that once-in-a-lifetime sum used.

The Douglas County Health Center. The Douglas County Community Mental Health Center occupies one floor within the building. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But you don’t have to think big if you want to make a difference. We’re so much better as a community when we take care of our mental health or, at the very least, have empathy for those struggling. 

So often friends and family of those with mental illness are the ones responsible for advocacy, so lending a hand can mean a lot. There are also several groups you can get involved with like Nebraskans for Mental Health Reform, Omaha’s affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Health and Region 6 Behavioral Health Care just to name a few. Groups like Omaha Together One Community have done probably more research than I have into this topic and build strong local advocacy coalitions on a variety of issues. There’s also state advisory committees on mental health which have meetings you can attend.

I heard it more than once that getting educated, sharing that information with others and speaking up makes a huge difference. 

And that’s probably a positive note to end this column, and series, on. 

A 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation study found 90% of Americans think we’re in a mental health crisis. How many other issues are we that aligned on? Probably few. 

And how many people think crises go away without asking the hard questions, seeing specific policy direction and holding their politicians accountable? Safe to assume that’s close to zero.

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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