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For their own good
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Mental health court urged
Millions of dollars are saved when the mentally ill get help, not jail time, a judge says.
By CHANDRA BROADWATER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 15, 2007
Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren runs Broward county's misdemeanor mental health court.
[Judy Sloan Reich | South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
SPRING HILL - Action brings change.
According to Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, that's what got the nation's first mental health court started in Fort Lauderdale 10 years ago.
"It doesn't matter how or if you get funding," Lerner-Wren said to a small crowd gathered at the Lake House on Friday night. "What matters is that you do something and to start small. Start any way you want; it doesn't matter. It's the action that matters."
As part of National Mental Illness Awareness Week, Lerner-Wren spoke about Broward's special court. Her talk highlighted the week's events locally, coordinated by NAMI Hernando and sponsored by BayCare Health System and the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the Hernando County Jail.
Jeff Feller, associate director of the WellFlorida Council, and Susan Wright, director of acute care services at the Harbor, also spoke. Jennifer Thompson, whose Spring Hill family joined the NAMI Hernando chapter at the height of her struggles with a mental illness, addressed the group as well.
The Broward court is one of a few hundred that exist in the country. Though one is on the way in Citrus County next year, the only similar program in the Tampa Bay area is in the 6th Judicial Circuit, for Pasco and Pinellas counties, where there is a diversion program for the mentally ill.
Since its inception in 1997, the court has saved Broward about $100-million, Lerner-Wren said. The program keeps mentally ill residents out of jail and places them in community programs that help them become more productive citizens, rather than a bigger drain on public funds.
The court also operates with no extra money, Lerner-Wren said. She tends to the mental health court as a side duty to her daily dealings with a regular county criminal court.
"The criminalization of the mentally ill is an abhorrent phenomenon, and how it's been able to persist and sustain itself is unconscionable," she said. "And the numbers here in Hernando are critical. They suggest nothing short of a crisis in this county."
According to the 2006 county health assessment needs survey, Hernando has a great need for mental health services that don't exist. In many cases, county statistics rank higher than state numbers.
Hernando's age-adjusted suicide rate, at 20.9 per 100,000 residents, is much higher than the state's, which is at 13.7.
Hernando has more people taken into custody under the Baker Act, when they are deemed a harm to themselves or others, than the state average. For example, in 2003, local authorities initiated about 704 Baker Act cases per 100,000 residents, compared with 609 per 100,000 statewide.
The health survey also reported that nearly 6 percent of residents suffer psychological distress. Nationally, 3 percent report facing similar issues.
To cope, the Hernando County Jail has spent money and dedicated space to provide additional mental health services, said warden Don Stewart. A wing of the facility with 48 beds has recently been devoted to inmates with mental illness. Two doctors have been added to the staff to provide mental health services.
The statewide outlook doesn't seem to get any better when Florida's poor reputation for funding mental health services is considered, Lerner-Wren said. Florida ranks 48th when it comes to per capita spending on mental health.
"In our state, we're behind Alabama and Georgia," she said. "And we are one of the top growth-driven states in the country."
But out of despair comes innovation, Lerner-Wren said.
"Remember, it's the synergy of doing," she said. "I promise you that it can get better."
Locally, NAMI members hope to spur the creation of a mental health court and other needed services. NAMI Hernando president Darlene Linville said that Friday's discussion was a welcome chance to get started.
"Please let this be the beginning of dialogue," she said. "Our taxpayers deserve to know just how much money and dignity can be saved."