Published 12:00 am Friday, May 2, 2008

‘Jail not answer’ for county’s mentally ill; now what?

By Rupert Howell and Billy Davis

A recently formed committee whose purpose is to find better ways to serve and assist those diagnosed with mental illness in Panola County agreed that awareness was an immediate problem and that long-term solutions will not come easy.

“Jail is not the answer,” Sheriff Shot Bright emphasized – a statement agreed upon by all members present at a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

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The local sheriff said funding from local sources and addressing the problem on the state level would need to occur for the situation to improve.

“We don’t have the staff to deal with these crisis,” the sheriff said of unruly mental patients being held at the county jail.

Bright, who was employed by the county as jailer before he was elected sheriff, said the problems with housing and treating mental illness is not new and stated that arguments have been ongoing for 30 years. He said the issue was state-wide  and that Panola County’s problem was small compared to other Mississippi counties.

Bright and Panola’s board of supervisors have discussed the problem of housing of mentally ill patients at length in the past year.

The ongoing problem came to light Thursday morning when Batesville police intervened after a male patient fled from Tri-Lakes hospital’s behavioral clinic.

Police bound the patient in plastic ties and handcuffs after he used his feet to bust a window in a police car. But the officers were still left with a problem: now what?

When Tri-Lakes refused to take the patient back, police were forced to take the patient to the county jail  until space is made available in another mental health facility.

At the community meeting, Deputy Chancery Clerk Alberdean Flowers said that approximately 10 to 14 cases of mental illness commitments come through the chancery clerk’s office each month but noted four had come through that morning.

She told the committee that those who have health insurance go to Tri-Lakes and those who don’t go to the Panola County jail. Those patients who can’t be restrained at Tri-Lakes eventually wind up at the jail also according to Flowers and Bright.

Betty Steward led discussion at the meeting and told members present that mental health patients were not being represented because, “These people have no voice.”

She explained that the stigma associated with mental illness keeps many with problems from admitting to or discussing those problems.

Steward began a support group that meets monthly and promotes mental wellness  and recovery through finding core causes of symptoms before a “ crisis” occurs with the patient. She noted that funding generally goes to crisis situations and recovery instead of prevention and she promotes a different approach to fighting mental health problems.

Members of the committee other than Steward, Flowers and Bright who attended the first meeting were Dean Bobo and Bill Dugger. Other members are Teresa Brasell, and Janice Dulaney.

The committee has scheduled another meeting Tuesday, May 13 at the courthouse in Batesville.