Senate Bill 39 addresses overcrowding in the state’s prison system due to mentally ill offenders and called for the creation of a mental health court system. While the idea is that defendants suffering from mental illness, developmental disability or substance abuse would receive a different form of punishment — which includes treatment for their particular need — defendants who are charged with murder, rape, aggravated sodomy, armed robbery, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated child molestation or child molestation would not be eligible to participate.
Currently, there are no plans in progress to establish a mental health court in Bartow.
“I don’t have any plans to instigate that immediately. We’re considering that option,” Superior Court Judge Shepherd Howell, said. “We don’t see as great a need for that as was for the drug court. We do see people with mental health issues from time to time that might benefit from that structure, but there’s just not as many as were in drug court.”
Recently, a Bartow family was involved in an incident when their son suffered a mental health crisis where he sustained self-inflicted injuries. Seeking medical help for their son, the parents had gained a 10-13 committal form the day prior to the incident and were waiting for deputies to arrive to transport the young man to the proper hospital. When law enforcement arrived several hours later, the man resisted and attempted to flee. In these situations, little resources were available for the family in gaining medical attention for the one in need and little training is available for officers.
“All certified deputies/investigators receive a small amount of training every year for dealing with disabled persons,” Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said. “Usually when a 10-13 comes in, it goes to patrol division to handle as soon as possible. There are times, such as this, that due to manpower or call volume, the serving of the paper may have to wait until [a] sufficient number of deputies can respond to assist. ... Right now, there is no case manager or anyone such as that to contact concerning a mental health patient. I would imagine HIPPA would restrict such back and forth open communication with law enforcement.”
Although a small amount of training is available for law enforcement, many mental health advocates are not necessarily fans of the idea of the proposed court system and are looking forward to changes coming for those in need.
“The substance abuse advocates typically are very, very supportive of drug courts because that’s how many of their really sick people get into treatment, they get respite and they’re forced to do it,” Cynthia Wainscott, a local mental health advocate and member of the Behavioral and Emotional Health Resources group, said. “People who are mental health advocates are less enthusiastic about the courts and here’s why: they tend to be coercive and one of the things we know is that when people are coerced, they tend to avoid the system. What works are peers enticing them, encouraging them into the system far better than mental health court. That said, when somebody is involved in the court, it’s far better to divert them than to just throw them into the general population. But, we think the real answer is to have peer services and the early intervention available so that people never get to the court. That’s where the mental health folks tend to focus their work.”
In place of a mental health court locally, Wainscott said new programs are being implemented to offer assistance to those in need without placing them in an institution.
“We’ve got the Peer Support, Wellness and Respite Center here and there’s only three of those in the state,” she said. “They are fabulous and keep people out of crisis. We know that now.”
The center helps shift the focus of treatment from a hospital-type institution and brings aid from someone who understands a crisis and can relate to the person seeking assistance. This type of aid, Wainscott says, helps bring the person into the community.
“We are going from an institution-centric system to one that is community based and recovery focused,” Wainscott said. “[The closing of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital] allows us to no longer have an institution centric system and now to move to an up-and-running, robust community based system that is recovery focused. By recovery, we mean people getting their life back.
“People who don’t have a psychiatric disorder or who have not had a severe addiction want a certain set of things. The people who have these illnesses also want them and they can be summed up in three things: a comfortable safe place of your choosing to live in; meaningful activities in the day time — many people want to go to work and haven’t been able to and are able to get jobs as they enter recovery — and then the third piece of it is having friends [which is] meaningful social relationships.”
Anyone seeking assistance for mental health treatment may contact the Peer Support, Wellness and Respite Center at 770-276-2019 or Highland Rivers — another center which offers assistance to north Georgia citizens battling mental illness, developmental disabilities or addiction — at 706-270-5000.