Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mental Health Advocates Meet in Tampa

01/10/08 Seán Kinane

There is such widespread incarceration of people with mental illness that jails have become the largest mental health care providers in many communities, according to a report released in November by the Florida Supreme Court.

The report on how the state’s courts and social support systems manage citizens with mental illness recommends that mentally ill patients be moved out of jails and into treatment facilities that are almost always less expensive. An advocacy group for people with mental illness or substance abuse, Florida Partners in Crisis, held a board meeting today in Tampa.

John Petrila is a professor with the Florida Mental Health Institute (FMHI) at the University of South Florida. He co-chaired the Policy, Legislative, and Finance Workgroup for the Supreme Court’s report.

Michele Saunders is the executive director of Florida Partners in Crisis, which she called a diverse coalition coming together with one purpose, to better fund the mental health and substance abuse system. One way to do that, according to Saunders, is to focus on legislation in Tallahassee, including a renewal of the Criminal Justice Mental Health Substance Abuse Reinvestment Act.

Saunders said increasing reinvestment funding is one of the recommendations in the Florida Supreme Court report and Florida Partners in Crisis will seek funding from the Legislature for others.

John Petrila said the Legislature has to follow up on the Supreme Court’s recommendations.

Saunders agrees that investing in up-front services will save the state money in the long run.

Mark Speiser is a circuit court judge in Broward County and is chair of the Florida Partners in Crisis Board. He said it was important for people with mental illnesses to have access to appropriate treatment.

One way to keep people with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system and get them needed care is through mental health courts. The country’s first mental health court was established in Broward County in 1997.

Within the next few months, Hillsborough County will begin a felony mental health court to reduce the criminalization of mental illness, headed by Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Debra Benhke.

Benhke said there are advantages to having a mental health court as opposed to keeping everyone in the criminal court system.

Judge Speiser said the Mental Health Court in Broward County serves as a successful model for the one in Hillsborough.

The group Mental Health America of Greater Tampa Bay will host a Mental Health Brainstorming Council on Saturday, Feb. 2 from 9 a.m. until noon at St. Lawrence Catholic Church on Himes Avenue in Tampa.

For information on the Tampa Bay Region Mental Health Brainstorming Council II meeting Feb. 2, contact Scott F. Barnett at (813) 972-2618.

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