DES MOINES — Two county sheriffs told state lawmakers that county jails are becoming the facility of last resort for Iowans with mental-health problems.

“We’re all hearing the same thing. The sheriffs across the state continue to raise this as one of their major, major issues. Mental health is a huge problem,” Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said.

Black Hawk County’s mental health-assessment and jail diversion program was touted as a model program for early detection and intervention of people needing substance-abuse or mental-health treatment rather than incarceration.

“In a growing scale and a growing need, we’re seeing more and more violent offenders, more and more people who are those square pegs in round holes,” Thompson told members of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee is assessing what impact mental-health issues create for public safety and Iowa law enforcement in the wake of recently deadly shootings around the country — including an incident at a Connecticut elementary school, where a gunman with a history of mental-health problems killed 20 children and six adults.

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said officials in Ames came together to create a crisis intervention unit that has had positive results in diverting people facing criminal offenses who need mental-health services to the facilities where they can receive proper treatment. However, funding sources continue to decrease, making it a challenge to keep such services available as Iowa’s county-based mental-health system makes a transition to a regionalized service delivery network.

“Unfortunately, throughout our country, the county jails are the largest mental-health facility within a county,” said Fitzgerald, who recently served as the national leader of a county sheriffs’ association. “County jails do not have the funding or skills to appropriately care for those individuals afflicted with a mental illness.”

Barb Gay, executive director of Foundation 2 Crisis Center in Cedar Rapids, which operates a statewide crisis counseling telephone hotline (800-332-4224), said last fiscal year her agency received about 20,000 calls for crisis counseling and emergency services. For the first half of the current fiscal year, the volume has hit about 12,000, so her center is on target to exceed fiscal 2012. Suicide calls are increasing as well, she said, with about 160 suicide-related calls coming in every month from the state’s 99 counties.

Sen. Daryl Beal, D-Fort Dodge, expressed concern to committee members that “we’re losing more veterans now through suicides than we are from combat injuries. We need to do better,” he said.

Fitzgerald also expressed concern to state legislators that a 2010 change in Iowa law regarding gun permits has “tied sheriffs’ hands” in dealing with applicants seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon whose federal background check indicates they have suicidal tendencies. He said sheriffs no longer have discretion in those cases because Iowa law “is silent and I must give that person a permit to carry a concealed weapon.”

Committee members said that Iowa’s mental-health system faces a significant need for sub-acute services for people exhibiting anti-social behavior to provide services before they commit the crimes and then must rely on the correctional system as “mental-health delivery vehicle of last resort.”

“We need to make sure that we adequately fund the mental-health system,” said committee chairman, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “It’s a patchwork quilt of services. One of those patches is the county jail, and that is not an adequate way to deal with mental-health conditions in Iowa.”