A $50,000 grant recently awarded to an area mental health agency could have an impact on the number of mentally ill persons arrested in Limestone County or who seek help at the Athens-Limestone Hospital emergency room.

The Stepping Up Initiative grant, provided by the Alabama Department of Mental Health, will enable the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama to hire a full-time case manager who will work solely on Limestone County cases. The MHCNCA received the grant last year and allowed the agency to work closely with the Morgan County Jail and Decatur-Morgan Health System.

Kathy Goodwin, Stepping Up coordinator, said the case worker would connect those suffering with mental illness with the appropriate community services. She explained the Morgan County program had received more than 50 screening referrals from the Morgan County Jail and more than 10 had been referred by Decatur-Morgan Hospital.

“This has translated to nearly 40 people receiving case management and/or behavioral health care treatment and other community services upon release from jail or discharge from the hospital,” Goodwin said. “The recidivism rate for inmates who received Stepping Up case management once released from jail is less than 5%. This translates to huge financial savings to Morgan County.”

Jail impact

According to the ADMH, people who have serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the nation 2 million times each year. Almost three-quarters of these adults have drug and alcohol use problems.

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said his department had signed an agreement two months ago with the MHCNCA when the agency applied for the grant. He said the new caseworker would be allowed into the jail to speak with inmates who may be suffering with mental illness and explain how to receive treatment, how to potentially have their medication costs covered or how to sign up for insurance.

The sheriff said the caseworker may also be able to help provide information about housing options if the person has nowhere go upon release from jail.

Blakely said the level of mental illness his deputies and jail staff encounter varies. As part of the 2014 jail expansion, 24 single-bunk occupancy cells were added to house inmates who could not be safely housed with the jail's general population.

“A lot of what we see in the jail that gives us problems are those who are hallucinating or totally combative,” he said. “We have (inmates) suffering from different types of mental illness, like someone suffering from depression.”

When asked what kind of impact mental illness has on his population, Blakely said he houses a “significant number of people” who could be candidates for voluntary or involuntary commitment. He was hopeful the new caseworker would provide some support to inmates who need it.

“We're excited about it, and I think it will be a good thing,” he said.

Stepping Up

Though a national program, the Stepping Up Initiative is managed at the county level to establish effective partnerships across individuals in law enforcement, local governmental entities, elected officials, mental health and health care providers, courts and any others needed to meet the goal. The mission of the program is divert people with mental illness from jails and into treatment.

Lisa Coleman, executive director for the MHCNCA, said Stepping Up presents a “smart and effective way” to begin addressing the very real needs of inmates with serious mental illnesses.

“(ADMH Commissioner Lynn Beshear) has been a pioneering champion for The Stepping Up Initiative, and we are all grateful for her leadership and determination to make this program a reality,” Coleman said. “The Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama is proud to have been chosen as the lead agency to implement this program in two counties. The Stepping Up program in Morgan County has been a wonderful addition of services available to the community. I am confident given our great partners in Limestone County that Stepping Up will make a difference there, also.”

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