It’s possible that the drowning of two women in an Horry County jail van in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in September could not have been prevented by any single law.
But the deaths of Nicolette Green and Wendy Newton resulted in no small part from the inadequate, half-hearted way in which South Carolina has for too long dealt with people suffering from mental health crises.
And state lawmakers, including Charleston Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson, are right to demand that reforms be considered in the upcoming legislative session.
Ms. Green and Ms. Newton, both of whom were residents of coastal towns affected by Hurricane Florence, had sought emergency mental health care and been committed by doctors for their own safety. Two sheriff’s deputies were asked to transport the patients to hospitals farther inland.
But the deputy driving the van with Ms. Green and Ms. Newton inside apparently drove around a barricade on Highway 76 that had been set up as a warning against dangerous flooding farther along the road.
Soon afterward, the deputy lost control of the vehicle, which was swept off the road and into a ditch against a guardrail, reportedly making it impossible to free the two women trapped inside. It took rescuers more than 24 hours to retrieve their bodies. Both deputies were fired.
The heartbreaking accident raises a number of concerns.
Law enforcement officers routinely transport mental health patients to treatment facilities. Most often, the process goes smoothly. And in the Charleston area at least, most officers are well-trained to deal with mental illness and respond appropriately.
But that’s not necessarily the case everywhere in South Carolina. A 2017 law requires that every law enforcement officer undergo education in “mental health or addictive disorders,” but the extensiveness of that training varies by agency.
Boosting mental illness education for police officers would help in a wide variety of situations — not just when transporting people to the hospital. Police officers are often the first responders for people dealing with psychiatric crises. Proper preparation could save lives.
Mr. Kimpson and other lawmakers on a state Senate subcommittee investigating the drowning are also considering making it easier for family members to transport mental health patients, which may make sense in some circumstances.
It’s still not entirely clear why Ms. Green and Ms. Newton were transported such a substantial distance — reportedly from Conway and Loris to Darlington, or well over an hour’s drive even in optimal conditions — in the immediate aftermath of a deadly hurricane.
But one likely contributing factor is the scarcity of in-patient mental health facilities in much of South Carolina.
The state’s roughly 1,800 in-patient treatment beds — about one for every 2,700 residents — are mostly in or near larger cities, making it difficult for people in rural areas to seek treatment. Expanding access to telemedicine and equipping smaller facilities to handle emergency psychiatric care could help ease that disparity.
There’s also the obvious concern that two experienced law enforcement officers apparently ignored obvious warnings about hazardous flooding, risking their own lives and the lives of two passengers. Clearly, that cannot be allowed to happen again.
People seeking treatment for mental illness are among South Carolina’s most vulnerable residents. Their care should reflect that vulnerability.