By Martin Espinoza
The largest psychiatric facility in Sonoma County is not a hospital.
It’s the jail.
If not by design then by default, jail cells have essentially replaced psychiatric hospital beds for many of Sonoma County’s most severely mentally ill residents. It is a trend that began before the closure of Santa Rosa’s two secured mental health hospitals a decade ago, and has continued since.
Now, nearly 40 percent of the 1,100 inmates held at the county’s main jail and its lower-security North County Detention Facility near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport have some form of mental health issue, from mild depression to bipolar schizoaffective disorder.
To house them and improve the quality of their care, the county is building a $48 million wing at the jail for inmates with mental illness — drawing both praise and anger from mental health advocates who would like to see more psychiatric hospital beds and housing with supportive services that help people with mental illness live in the community.
The new wing, which is slated to open in two years, underscores the magnitude of the sweeping changes that have altered the way America cares for its mentally ill.