For people in custody or awaiting trial, life can feel uncertain. It can be even more uncertain and difficult for someone experiencing mental health issues.
Sarpy County’s Mental Health Case Management Program is designed to assist people with mental illness as they navigate the criminal justice system.
The program ultimately aims to prevent future encounters with the judicial system by addressing issues associated with untreated, underlying mental illness that can lead someone to commit a crime.
“The goal is to reduce the cycle of people with mental illness from coming in and out of the system,” said Mental Health Case Manager Ashlie Weisbrodt, who oversees the Mental Health Case Management Program. “We don’t want that cycle to repeat.”
Breaking the cycle
The program is one of many ways Sarpy County is working to help people who experience mental health crisis and decriminalize the mental illness. Though the county aims to avoid booking people in crisis into the jail, efforts like the Mental Health Case Management Program assist those who are in custody, facing charges and awaiting trial.
Established in 2014, the program is part of the Sarpy County Community Corrections Department, which also runs the pretrial services, house arrest, work release and re-entry assistance programs. The mental health program is mostly grant funded by the Nebraska Crime Commission through U.S. Department of Justice.
“Mental Health Case Management is a more specialized form of pretrial services,” said Jake Berst, Director of Sarpy County Community Corrections. “We work with clients individually and identify their strengths and needs as they relate to mental health. We figure out how to get them resources they don’t currently have.”
The Mental Health Case Management Program is voluntary, though a judge can require someone to participate. Individuals go through a screening process when booked into jail, and that screening helps identify participants who have bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or substance abuse issues, and may need assistance setting up appointments or accessing medication or therapy.
Weisbrodt arranges an initial meeting to assess the person’s life situation. The assessment includes questions about their living conditions and mental state.
Individuals who participate in the Mental Health Case Management Program then meet weekly with Weisbrodt, who builds an individualized plan to get that person services through providers like Heartland Family Services and Lutheran Family Services.
That kind of communication and accountability are key to helping individuals manage their mental illness and maintain sobriety. The regular check ins – and a safe place where they can share their thoughts and struggles – help individuals establish independent living skills, find employment and gain confidence.
“One of the positive things I see is when my clients are connected with agencies who provide services on a sliding fee scale. A lot times my clients don’t have insurance, and that’s a barrier to getting the help and attention they need,” Weisbrodt said. “Just knowing what help is available, and having someone to encourage them, is huge.”
Support in the community
The Mental Health Case Management Program serves roughly 80 clients each year, with some staying six months and others up to a year. Currently, Weisbrodt is working with about 25 clients.
If participants get probation, their charges dismissed or a fine, then their enrollment in the program is considered successfully completed.
“Basically, not going to jail is how we define success,” Weisbrodt said. “In that case, then they qualify for aftercare, and I can follow up with them for a year after their case has been sentenced. There is no legal obligation for clients to participate in aftercare, but I’m someone in the community who’s there.”
“Offering this kind of support through the Mental Health Case Management Program is important, because the focus is on the wellbeing of the person accused of a crime. It’s support they need to live a better life, and support that will pay dividends for society, if individuals leave with the skills to set them on a solid path,” said Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly.
This has been Part 3 in an ongoing series about Sarpy County’s Mental Health Services. Coming next: Mental Health Diversion’s role in assisting those with mental health issues.