Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mentally ill need treatment, not jail

By Darlene Linville, Guest Columnist

Published Sunday, July 6, 2008 5:17 PM


"Treatment not jail'' is the battle cry for Partners in Crisis, a statewide advocacy organization whose members support prevention and early treatment programs designed to keep people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and get them into treatment. Each year as many as 125,000 people with mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida jails.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Florida theoretically chose the same battle cry, "treatment not jail," when members statewide chose initiatives for 2007, setting as No. 1 to advocate for more funding for the mental health care system, and No. 2, to work toward improving programs to keep people with mental illness from being involved with the criminal justice system. Florida's jails and prisons house more than 10 times the number of people with mental illness as the number being treated in mental health facilities.

NAMI Hernando shouted that same battle cry in 2007 with a community education seminar titled "Taking Action … Let the Dialogue Begin," at which Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren spoke about her involvement as presiding judge in the establishment of the nation's first Mental Health Court in Broward County. She talked long and hard about how the Mental Health Court in her county saved taxpayer dollars while preserving the human dignity of those living with a treatable mental illness. Treatment not jail!

Hernando County was listening. A task force was formed and with the help of Karen Nicolai, clerk of court, Jean Rags, director of Health and Human Services and Kathleen Lonergan, coordinator for the Drug Court, that same battle cry was soon picked up by others in our county. Many people gathered to discuss the need and the possibilities; from the judges to the jail warden to the State Attorney's Office, to the hospital administrators, all were in agreement: A Mental Health Court was desperately needed.

Too many people with treatable mental illnesses were spending time in a very expensive jail when their crimes were not violent, but rather were directly related to nontreatment of their mental illness. The 2006 Hernando County health needs assessment shows that Baker Act initiations are substantially higher in Hernando County than Florida's average, and have been increasing since 2000.

I am amazed at how quickly our county officials, judges, attorneys and jail personnel came together to make it all happen. The mental health court has begun hearing cases, in Judge Richard Tombrink's courtroom.

Everyone agrees a mental health court is not the final answer, but only a beginning. "Treatment not jail" includes finding the treatment necessary to keep people on essential medication and involved with adequate psychiatric care. The Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute will do all that it can, but in these troubled times of reduced spending for necessary programs it can only do what current funding levels allow.

"Continuing the Dialogue … Decriminalizing Mental Illness" was the theme for NAMI's most recent community education seminar on May 31 at Nativity Lutheran Church. Approximately 70 people heard a panel of experts discuss the why's and how's of a mental health court. County Commissioner Chris Kingsley read the county proclamation for Mental Health Month.

Sheriff Richard Nugent and several members of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office attended the event, at which the recently graduated members of the Crisis Intervention Team were recognized. These officers form a unique group, a group that has learned through special training to recognize mental health issues and the techniques necessary to de-escalate potentially explosive situations, thus preserving human dignity and community safety. We now have 18 trained members of the Crisis Intervention Team. Once again, "treatment not jail".

The first full week of October will find NAMI on a national level observing Mental Illness Awareness Week. NAMI Hernando will be continuing the dialogue and shouting the battle cry "treatment not jail." Watch for more information in the months ahead.

Thank you for listening, Hernando County. We look forward to continuing this partnership and our fight for adequate care for the mentally ill.

Darlene Linville is president of the board of directors of NAMI Hernando. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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