The situation has happened more times than one can count.
An adult living with his parents has an episode. Maybe he stopped taking his prescribed medications. Maybe an argument just spiraled out of control. It’s escalated to the point that the person is a danger to himself and others.
Exasperated, the parents turn to the only resource they feel is available to them: police.
“It’s a law enforcement issue because there’s not enough resources. Law enforcement can’t say no,” said Rob Hillabrand, a Sergeant with the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office who serves as the county’s Mental Health Program Coordinator. “Mental illness is a medical condition – no different than when you get sick and go to the hospital.”
Today, people in crisis are more likely to come into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system than they are to receive the necessary medical attention, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That puts jurisdictions like Sarpy County on the front lines of this important issue.
Sarpy County recognizes jail is not the appropriate place for non-violent offenders who have a mental illness. Still, roughly 20 percent of Sarpy County jail inmates have a serious mental illness, which can include schizophrenia, delusional disorder, bipolar affective disorder, major depression and OCD.
When people with mental illness are jailed, their issues are rarely adequately treated, and their jail stays end up being much longer than inmates without mental illness. Because their underlying issues aren’t resolved, they are likely to reoffend.
According to data collected during the last year as part of the Stepping Up Initiative, a national initiative localized by Region 6 and Sarpy County, people with serious mental illness remained in the Sarpy County jail for an average of 106 days – compared to an average 15-day stay for people without mental illness.
Similarly, people with serious mental illness are much more likely to commit another crime and end up back in jail, as compared to people without mental illnesses.
“Our goal is that anyone who violates the law doesn’t do it again, whether it’s theft or assault or alcohol or drug related. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to provide a deterrent and hopefully some form of rehabilitation,” said Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov. “If we can get people early, who are coming into contact with law enforcement and get them the proper treatment and stabilization, it saves everyone a lot of hardship.”
Leaders across Sarpy County recognize the pain mental illness causes and the need for accessible mental health resources. Together with community partners, the county is engaged in several initiatives to better serve those impacted by mental illness and ultimately decriminalize the disease.
Here are some of the efforts underway:
- Mental Health Unit. The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office has established a Mental Health Unit under the direction of Sgt. Rob Hillabrand. The unit accompanies Heartland Family Service’s ASAP (Assessment, Support and Prevention) program therapists, follows up on people with mental illness who’ve had contact with law enforcement and facilitates mental health-related training across the county.
- Mental Health Case Management Program. The Mental Health Case Management Program is for people on pretrial release. The program, managed by Mental Health Case Manager Ashlie Weisbrodt, is a specialized form of pre-trial services that helps connect someone with resources, like therapy and medication management.
- Mental Health Diversion. Diversion is an alternative focused on rehabilitation that helps clients stay on track with therapy, medications and appointments. The Sarpy County Attorney’s Office developed its Mental Health Diversion program seven years ago under the leadership of Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov. Dean Loftus, Carisa Gosda and David Soto manage the program.
- Plans for the future: Sarpy County Correctional Center’s special management unit. The existing jail conducts a mental health screening and offers some mental health-related resources. But the new correctional center, which is under design, will have an entire unit dedicated to mental health care and will take an innovative approach to helping some of the most vulnerable people there.
Sarpy County Commissioner Jim Warren, who serves on the Mental Health Leadership Team, said the initiatives are sound investments.
“It doesn’t do any good to incarcerate people who really aren’t meant to be there and will easily end back in jail, where they may be a danger to themselves or others,” Warren said. “Our multi-faceted approach is a compassionate yet fiscally responsible one. We want to eliminate that revolving door and get people the help they need so they can live their lives. That’s a good outcome for the person, their family, our community and the system as a whole.”
This has been Part 1 in an ongoing series about Sarpy County’s Mental Health Services. Coming next: A look inside the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office and several programs underway to better equip deputies with mental health training and knowledge.