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Archive for Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Different route

A local group deserves applause for seeking new ways to help community people with mental illness.

April 19, 2006

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They say one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Congratulations to Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern and the rest of the committee seeking different strategies and a better result for local people with mental illness.

After watching people with mental illness come to the jail, get out of jail, then bounce back into jail time after time, McGovern concluded there must be a better way to handle these cases. The inmates didn't really belong in jail, but they couldn't handle life outside of jail without some help.

To try to figure out a way to break the cycle, McGovern and Undersheriff Kenny Massey last month convened a 20-member "re-entry committee" that included professionals that provide mental health, housing and other services to the exiting inmates. The goal is to help them connect with services that will keep them from returning to jail.

The group already has come up with some common sense approaches to the basic problems facing the clients. Key among those is the gap between when inmates leave jail and when they get mental health assistance. Currently, inmates are released at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center and may never make it to Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to get the help they need to stay out of jail.

Inmates now will receive a mental health assessment while they are still in jail and will be taken directly to Bert Nash when they are released. Professionals at the center can make sure they get hooked up with mental health services and get the medications they need.

Other members of the re-entry committee are looking at ways to provide housing and employment for the residents. It's a multifaceted problem that calls for a multipronged approach.

In recent years, state mental hospitals have been abandoned in favor of "community-based" programs for people with mental illness. In many cases, communities were not fully prepared to deal with people whose mental illness was severe enough that it had caused them to be hospitalized. Too often, the clients end up in jail as a last resort to keep them from harming themselves and others.

Repeated incarcerations, however, are both a burden to taxpayers and counterproductive for the people involved. The closure of state mental hospitals has thrust the caregiving role on communities, and the local group is taking a true community approach to providing that care. Lawrence and Douglas County residents should applaud and support their efforts.

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