• October 18, 2019

Grant sparks mental health help - Odessa American: Ector County

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Grant sparks mental health help

Local collaboration will address inmate issues

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Posted: Saturday, October 13, 2018 5:00 am

Up to 30 percent of Ector County inmates could be living with a mental illness or facing a mental health issue without proper treatment, Permia Care CEO Ramona Thomas said.

Thomas said inmate mental health is a growing problem that affects every single county in Texas. She said the state has struggled to address this due to a multitude of issues such as limited availability of state psychiatric resources, but she said Ector County is headed in the right direction to attend to this matter.

Ector County Commissioners approved creating a behavioral health screener position for the jail on Tuesday in conjunction with the grant awarded to Permia Care in order to comply with the Sandra Bland Act and expand resources for those incarcerated.

“Sandra Bland was an individual that was arrested by the Department of Public Safety,” Sheriff Mike Griffis said. He said she died while in custody. “Apparently she displayed suicidal tendencies at the time she was jailed, and I guess they failed to key on those issues that were apparent at the time,” Griffis said.

The legislation aims to improve training for jailers, requires jails to have medical personnel present and access to a mental health care professional.

“When folks have a mental health issue that is not addressed and they don’t receive treatment for it, (it can become unmanageable). They either get so sick that they end up in the local hospital’s emergency room or they get into some kind of trouble with the law, usually petty crimes,” Thomas said. “The sheriff’s office has nowhere for these folks to go and they end up having to house these folks that don’t need to be necessarily incarcerated but need treatment as much as anything else.”

She said that, as a local mental health authority, Permia Care was able to apply for new funding made available through Senate Bill 292.

“In fiscal year 2019, revenue was set aside to go to local communities that were in counties with less than 250,000 people, so we had a chance at that,” Thomas said. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to apply. The state only awarded 10 grants and this is one of them, it was a total of $314,000.”

The grant supports community programs providing behavioral health care services for adults with a mental illness and unmet behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system, and facilitates the local cross-agency coordination of behavioral health, physical health and jail diversion services, a Texas Human Health Services report stated.

A requisite for the grant is ensuring a community collaborative approach. Due to the county’s population, a 50 percent match with non-state sourced funds was also required.

“We were just blessed to be able to partner with the local MHA and apply for this grant and get it,” Griffis said. “Instead of having to swallow the entire (amount), we’re only having to swallow half of it.”

Thomas said the grant funds two in-house mental health positions in the jail, part-time psychiatrists, psychoactive medication and more.

She said this problem has only reached this proportion in just the last few years and has skyrocketed in costs for local communities.

“A part contributing to the problem is our state psychiatric hospital,” Thomas said.

She said access to state psychiatric inpatient beds is minimal, which has created a huge backlog and waiting list.

“Right now our county hospitals are footing the bill when they can’t get them into the state psychiatric hospital,” Thomas said. “They’re having to purchase beds from the private psychiatric hospital. Now, you couldn’t get into a state hospital unless you were willing to wait a year, and as you know mental illness doesn’t wait that long.”

Griffis agreed that the state has been slow to address this problem and the effects have trickled down.

“I think our big goal is to decrease the recidivism if we can treat them on an outpatient basis and keep them out of jail then that’s a cost savings for community, it’s more clinically appropriate for the patient and it preserves the resources in the community both in the jail and in your local emergency rooms,” Todd Luzadder, Permia Care mental health director, said.

Luzadder said mental illness is not synonymous with criminal behavior, but sometimes people who have a mental illness end up incarcerated and need accommodation. This leads to another problem for a county that outsources inmates.

County Commissioners approved an intergovernmental agreement with Mitchell County on Tuesday for the housing and care of Ector County inmates.

“I believe we have contracts with 11 other jails at this time as of (Tuesday),” Griffis said. “We’re needing to send some inmates to other places and we’re running out of room.”

Contracts with other counties come at a cost. Ector County Auditor David Austin previously estimated current payments at the cost of about $45 per inmate a day.

Thomas said that inmates transferred to other counties would not have access to the mental health services.

“It’s so frustrating to watch money become available, but you have to do a competitive proposal,” Thomas said.

Even though the problem is widespread, there are not enough funds for every county. She said it feels like a bunch of dogs are chasing after a small bone when applying for state funds.

There is no assurance for Permia Care that they will receive the grant in the future, but Thomas said they are taking steps to blend criminal justice and mental health expertise to improve the current situation.

“If we can destigmatize mental health, get people talking about it, get them into treatment then a lot of people won’t end up inside a county jail to begin with, or the ER where they might get minimal treatment, sent to a private psychiatric hospital for a couple of days and then back on the street again only to go through the cycle all over again,” Thomas said.

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