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Monday, October 21, 2013
This newspaper recently ran an editorial (“A cold refuge for the mentally ill,” Sept. 27) highlighting the longstanding, nationwide problem of too many individuals with mental illness in our country’s jails and prisons. I agree with The Roanoke Times that mental health systems across the nation and in Virginia are struggling to overcome both increasing demands for services and the erosion of community resources that could help this problem. However, a critical part of the equation was not included in the editorial.
Over the past several years, tremendous strides have been made to divert those with mental illness from the criminal justice system. One great success has been Crisis Intervention Teams (or CIT), which are collaborative programs involving both law enforcement and mental health providers. CIT training teaches law enforcement officers to recognize when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and how to de-escalate the situation, reduce confrontations and minimize the use of force. CIT officers work with mental health providers to redirect people in crisis away from unwarranted incarceration and into mental health care and treatment. Today, more than 5,000 law enforcement officers in Virginia have been trained in CIT, and 83 percent of the commonwealth’s population now lives in areas with CIT.
An integral part of the CIT program is an assessment center where officers take the person in crisis for an immediate mental health evaluation in a secure, therapeutic environment. In the past two years alone we have worked with the General Assembly to fund six additional CIT assessment centers, for a total of 13 throughout Virginia. The CIT initiative is a way to stretch limited funds to strengthen and integrate the criminal justice and mental health systems.
There are times when individuals with mental illness cannot be diverted from the criminal justice system. For those individuals, mental health programs are available to help both current and recently released inmates receive effective treatment. From 2010 to 2012, more than 1,700 individuals received services through such programs operated by the state and hundreds more through programs run by local governments. While some local governments operating jails provide excellent mental health services, usually in cooperation with local community services boards, more mental health services should be available to those jails with limited resources.
We are also concerned about prisoners regaining their footing in society upon release. To this end, I issued an executive order to create a prisoner reentry program to link those with mental health needs to much-needed community services once they are released.
In addition, we have been working with the General Assembly to look at other areas of critical need to expand behavioral health services across Virginia. This has resulted in modest, but steady, new investments to help communities meet targeted needs.
For example, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, we established the Task Force on School and Campus Safety to help improve safety in our schools and examine our readiness to respond to children and adults with behavioral health concerns. The task force was conscious that individuals with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and it recommended strategies to make schools and communities safer. For the mental health system, the task force’s work resulted in new initiatives to strengthen Virginia’s suicide prevention efforts, establish a statewide Mental Health First Aid program to help citizens respond to people experiencing mental or emotional distress in their communities, and expand psychiatry and crisis response services for children.
The task force’s efforts on behalf of children augmented existing efforts already under way to meet the highest priority mental health needs, resulting in 3,775 children receiving emergency services or child psychiatry services.
Also, we are working to make certain that community services are available for those ready for discharge from state hospitals so that safety net bed capacity can be assured for those with the most acute treatment needs. We have expanded the Discharge Assistance Program to support the discharge of individuals in state hospitals who are clinically ready for discharge but for whom the appropriate community services have not been available.
We are aware that nationwide jails and prisons are more frequently becoming providers of mental health services, something they were not initially designed to do. There is indeed a lack of funds to fill in all the gaps in our publicly funded mental health system, but there is not a lack of will to find and implement targeted, collaborative solutions that make our communities safer and improve the lives of people with mental illness.
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