Beyond “Florida man:” Top state officials focus on helping those with mental health problems

Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. Source: Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons

A rural sheriff once told Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody that people in his community were begging for admission to his jail.

“He had people coming to him and asking him to lock them up and help them get better mentally and physically. They were at their wits’ end,” Moody said. “He didn’t know how to handle that situation.”

She shared the story with law enforcement, mental health, and community leaders attending the third of her roundtable discussions about the intersection between the criminal justice, mental health, and drug-addiction treatment systems.

“We have to make sure that our jails and prisons can accommodate those people that are a danger to our community and are rightfully serving sentences,” she said. But if inmates need mental health or drug treatment, “why are we not ensuring that it gets done while they’re are in that setting? And it would be more cost-effective since they are there anyway.”

The roundtable was the third in a series Moody has been hosting this spring and summer. The first, on May 15, addressed mental health problems within law enforcement. The second, on June 26 in West Palm Beach, tackled ways to intervene in cases before they end in an arrest, diverting troubled people away from jail and into treatment.

The setting this time was the Panhandle’s Bay County, and the topic was providing treatment to jail and prison inmates. The final discussion, about how the courts handle mental illness, is set for Aug. 23 at the Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.

The series is part of a broad push for mental health and substance abuse treatment. First Lady Casey DeSantis has taken up the cause, hosting a series of listening tours around the state about mental health and substance abuse, and the State Board of Education has approved a mental health curriculum for Florida school children.

Bay County Sheriff Tom Ford described a spike in mental health problems in his community since Hurricane Michael hit Oct. 10, and said community resources aren’t keeping up. His office has fielded 656 mental health- and 249 suicide-related calls since the storm. The county’s suicide rate increased by 75 percent, from eight to 14. Institutional commitments for juveniles with mental health problems also have skyrocketed.

“Part of that is due to the hurricane, but part of it also is due to the awareness in our school system of mental health issues and the increase in resources in the school system for that,” Ford said.

He’s emphasizing training, including sending a delegation to Florida State Hospital – the big mental health commitment center in Chattahoochee – to study its approach to managing and treating inmates with mental conditions.

He’s also deployed “mission-based resilience” – a system for coping with stress, designed for elite military units, that the sheriff’s department teaches to inmates.

“Just to see the difference in the inmates from the first day in class to when they finish six weeks later, in the way they sit up taller in their chairs. They’ve been given the tools that probably no one has ever talked to them about on how to deal with the stresses of life and improve themselves and set goals in those areas of their lives,” Ford said.

Walton County – also in the Panhandle – devises treatment programs tailored for each inmate who needs mental health services, Sheriff Mike Adkinson said.  Besides counseling and medication (if needed), the county offers vocational education and help finding a job after an inmate is released. The county even helps former inmates pay for the things they need to be successful, such as medications and a driver’s license.  Adkinson says his program depends on having qualified personnel to assist people with mental health issues.

“It’s expensive to do,” Adkinson says,”but I believe it’s worth it in the long run,”

It can cost $65 or more per day to hold a prisoner, so any reductions in repeat offenses  add up, Adkinson said. He’s seen fewer uses of force against inmates, too. It pays, he said, for deputies to embrace the role of social worker. Florida inmates serve an average 26 days awaiting trial or up to 100 days post-sentencing.

“I can make a moral argument all day long why this is the right thing to do,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work for you, I can make a fiscal argument.”

In law enforcement “we’ve always viewed this as not our problem,” Moody said. “It is our problem if we have a revolving door into the jailhouse of people who are experiencing mental health episodes and are not a danger to the community, but they are being arrested, housed for an average of 26 days and then released back with no stabilization,” Moody said.

The key, she said, is to “start the program while they’re incarcerated, make sure there’s a bridge from the time they’re there to the time they’re released with the community partners that can take the baton from you and continue that stabilization. That’s what’s going to be making a difference.”

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