Law enforcement, families get new options for mental health treatment

Law Enforcement, Families  Get New Options for Mental Health

A few states have made strides in providing law enforcement officials and family members more options when a person’s mental illness influences him or her to commit violent or unexpected acts. Work It, Lynchburg reported that Virginia-based Centra Health is set to break ground on a dedicated mental health facility on the grounds of Lynchburg General Hospital. Centra hopes that, rather than locking patients away, law enforcement will bring mentally ill patients to the facility for observation and treatment.

Mentally ill does not mean criminal

According to the National Alliance on mental Illness, more than half of all inmates have a recent history of mental health issues. NAMI estimated that 31 percent of women, 14.5 percent of men and 70 percent of juvenile offenders have serious mental illnesses. Because so little mental health treatment is available in jails and prisons, the majority of these mentally ill patients leave jail less stable than when they were sentenced.

Felicia Prescott is the senior director of Horizon Behavioral Health’s Lynchburg office and one of the partners involved in the construction process. Horizon was part of a group of organizations that included Centra, the Lynchburg Police Department and six community service boards. In total, the group raised $1.8 million for the construction of the new mental health crisis center.

“The assessment center will enhance the service delivery to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis,” Prescott told Work It, Lynchburg.

The groups will break ground on the center in the fall, with completion expected in several months. Rather than a long-term care facility, the crisis center will serve as a point of first contact for law enforcement officials who believe a suspect has a critically unstable mental health condition. Officers will be able to bring mentally ill patients to the center for emergency care. Eventually, Prescott explained that the crisis center will become a permanent psychiatric emergency center for Lynchburg General Hospital.

The center represents the beginning of an important shift in how mental conditions are categorized by law enforcement. The center will be a dedicated health care facility, which means that the mentally ill will be treated as patients instead of prisoners. The crisis center will be staffed by peer counselors, hospital coordinators and trained off-duty police. Horizon has been working to accelerate this conceptual shift through officer training programs, and the Lynchburg Police Department already has 78 officers certified as first responders for mentally ill or disabled patients.

Families have a choice

While the Lynchburg crisis center gives law enforcement more options when dealing with mentally ill patients, the families of these people are often the most helpless in crisis situations. Many places throughout the U.S. do not allow families to commit loved ones to treatment and can only watch as their sons, daughters or siblings are consumed by their conditions. However, San Francisco recently took steps to put some power back in families’ hands: Laura’s Law, a proposal that would allow families to place loved ones in hospitals against their will, was recently passed by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Named for a Nevada teenager who was killed by a man who refused to comply with his behavioral treatment, Laura’s Law has already been enacted by California’s Yolo and Orange counties, and many expect San Francisco County to follow suit.

The Board of Supervisors held a hearing July 6th where law enforcement and members of the community explained why Laura’s Law will let families help their loved ones in the greatest times of need.

Dale Milfay explained that even after her son’s 79th mental incident and $1 million in cumulative health care costs, she had no power to get him into treatment. With each incident, Milfay’s son grew less and less likely to recover, and she argued to the Board of Supervisors that Laura’s Law would give families the power they need to help their loved ones.

“Today we changed the status quo in San Francisco,” Supervisor Mark Farrell told the legislature after the successful vote, as quoted by the LA Times. “By implementing Laura’s Law, we are going to help the most vulnerable individuals suffering from mental illness across our city and provide the families the support they deserve.”

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