Union County agencies are working together as part of the national Stepping Up Initiative, which aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. Employees at the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Union County said grant funding is being used to gather data and plan programming to assist inmates with mental illness. (Graphic submitted)
In Ohio, nearly a third of all inmates have a mental illness.
National statistics show that these individuals typically stay in jail longer and return more frequently.
As their populations grow, county jails are increasingly becoming what experts call “de-facto, inpatient psychiatric facilities.”
While designed to help in the rehabilitation process, jails are often unequipped to provide these inmates with the help they need.
Local agencies are teaming up to change that.
In 2016, the Union County Commissioners signed a resolution to join the Stepping Up Initiative, a national movement to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail.
Mackenzie Poling, Stepping Up Coordinator for the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Union County (MHRBUC), said the resolution made jail populations a priority for mental healthcare.
“People need to understand how untreated mental illness can impact a person’s behavior,” she said. “These people deserve a chance to be helped, just like anyone else.”
She said the process began in 2017, when MHRBUC was awarded a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the U.S. Department of Justice.
This grant allowed MHRBUC to partner with the Tri-County Regional Jail, which serves Union, Champaign and Madison counties, to collect data and begin program planning.
“We were able to start asking things like, ‘How big is the issue? What are the gaps?’” Poling said.
Through this process, Poling said she learned Tri-County had a process to identify inmates with mental illnesses, but the data was “minimal and all self-reported.”
She said the jail simply asked individuals during the booking process, “Have you ever received treatment for a mental illness?”
Inmates often didn’t know what exactly “treatment” included, Poling explained, or were fearful of admitting they had received some form of it.
At the time, she said Tri-County data indicated that 17% of inmates had a mental illness. However, Poling said those at MHRBUC believe that number is “very low” due to underreporting.
Then, in September 2019, MHRBUC received an additional “implementation grant” from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Poling said this funding allowed the board to help Tri-County implement new screening tools.
Now, she said every individual booked into the jail is screened by booking officers, using “validated tools” that are accepted clinically. The tools screen inmates for mental illnesses, substance abuse and suicide concerns.
If an inmate from Union County tests positive for any of these markers, they are further screened by a Maryhaven employee now working at Tri-County, whose position was created by the grant.
Poling said information is then shared with the court system and judges, who can assist in connecting the inmate with treatment, likely from Maryhaven or Lighthouse Behavioral Health Solutions.
Ultimately, Poling said the goal is to “create a connection from jail back to the community” and prevent inmates from “revolving in and out of the system.”
As part of the Stepping Up Initiative, Poling said county agencies are also collaborating to put preventative measures in place.
The grant created a position within the Union County Sheriff’s Office – a coordinator for the Crisis Intervention Team and the Critical Incident Stress Management program.
Poling said this program trains first responders how to deescalate scenarios related to mental illness and transport individuals to Maryhaven, as opposed to jail.
Collaboration between mental health service providers, law enforcement, courts and jails is crucial to the success of the initiative, Poling said.
“It’s been amazing to see everyone come together because we all care about these people.”
As the initiative progresses, Poling said partners will continue to focus on “getting a better idea of how many (inmates with mental illness) are actually in jail” and solidifying data.
“We know we can’t really put things into place without true data,” she added.
She said the ultimate goal is to provide help and care for the inmates who need it, but doing so benefits the community as a whole.
Helping the individuals impacted will likely lead to less overcrowding in jails, Poling added, which is a financial plus for the county.
Beyond that, Poling said connecting inmates with care enables them to become productive members of society.
“At the Mental Health and Recovery Board, we see anyone with mental health concerns as needing help… and this (initiative) is something we all benefit from,” she said.
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