Column: Stepping up together to help mentally ill

Barb Lewis - Contributing Columnist

“Joe Brown” and “Sally Jones” suffer from mental-health issues, often made worse by substance abuse. Joe is also a troubled military veteran. Sally is a young mother fighting depression who suffered a back injury and became addicted to prescription drugs. Their many trips to the Delaware County jail for petty, non-violent offenses haven’t made them better persons and cost thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps as many as three out of four people residing in our jail are Joes and Sallys. They cost two to three times as much to house in jail because of their mental-health issues, tend to stay longer, and are more likely to return to jail than mentally healthy inmates. Sadly, our jails today house more people with mental illness than do our psychiatric hospitals. This is a serious, national problem, made even worse by the growing scourge of opioid addiction.

Your elected officials in Delaware County are working together to break this revolving-door cycle. Joining with hundreds of counties and cities throughout the country, we and our staffs are part of a dynamic project called the Stepping Up Initiative.

Stepping Up engages everyone at every stage in our local criminal justice system, from our law enforcement officers and jail and corrections staff, to our prosecutors, defense attorneys and trial judges, and our social service agencies, both public and private.

I am pleased to serve as a project team leader on the county’s leadership planning team along with Sheriff Russ Martin, County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien, Delaware-Morrow Mental Health & Recovery Services Board Executive Director Deanna Brant and Delaware County Sheriff’s Office Program Coordinator Kassie Neff. And we are strongly supported by Judges Everett Krueger, David Gormley, David Sunderman, Marianne Hemmeter, David Hejmanowski and Randy Fuller; Delaware City Police Chief Bruce Pijanowski; Job and Family Services Director David Dombrosky; and Chiefs of Probation Joe Perry and Doug Staugler.

Together we and our staffs are focusing every available community resource to help identify and successfully treat our Joes and Sallys as soon as they become incarcerated, and then direct them to lead healthy, productive lives afterwards — long and far removed from the jailhouse.

This initiative requires financial support and my fellow commissioners — Jeff Benton and Gary Merrell — and I are committed to providing it. No longer will our jail be just a revolving door for Joe and Sally.

Last year, we launched our Stepping Up program during a two-day meeting attended by over 40 people, who included key agency administrators, staff and consumer advocates from the mental-health, substance abuse and criminal justice system. We concentrated on strategic planning and collaboration to establish an integrated, local action plan. We set priorities for change and have been continually working to improve them ever since.

Our priorities include setting defined criteria for identifying Joes and Sallys. We then train our law enforcement to safely divert individuals in mental health crisis into psychiatric, crisis-stabilization and detox resources, and connect those who are incarcerated to those services as best we can within the

limits of our jail’s bed capacity. We bring them and their needs to the attention of our court system, which assigns them to special mental-health dockets. Upon their release from jail or prison, we ensure appropriate transportation and transitional and supportive housing. We focus necessary treatment and other support services available from local agencies. And we track, analyze and share all the relevant data in order to improve and refine the overall program.

We invite all local social service and community support organizations to join us in this effort. Kassie Neff is our Stepping Up point person. Please give her a call at 740-833-2828 for additional information, or if you believe you or your organization can help us in any way.

Our first goal is to help Joe and Sally “Step Up” and into a safe, healthy, law abiding and productive lifestyle. Our second goal is to save money. No more revolving doors. It’s a win-win for everyone in Delaware County if we can make this work — and we will.

I thank all my fellow Delaware County officeholders and their staffs for “Stepping Up” together to meet this community challenge.

Barb Lewis

Contributing Columnist

Barb Lewis is a Delaware County Commissioner.

Barb Lewis is a Delaware County Commissioner.