In October 2007, during Mental Illness Awareness Week, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Hernando said "let the dialogue begin" and hosted a meeting at which Judge Ginger Werner-Wren spoke about the very successful mental health court in Broward County. In January 2008, Hernando County began its "baby steps" for Hernando County's mental health court. Used in this sense, a "baby step" is a measurement of progress. In February 2008, we were still talking about baby steps, but the steps are longer and there are more people helping this toddler to reach his goal.
We at NAMI Hernando are excited that the first steps have been taken. This is progress!
You may remember that the goal of a mental health court is to keep those who have a mental illness out of the jail system. This is not as easy as it sounds. When a person with a mental illness commits a nonviolent crime and becomes involved in the justice system, our judges often have nowhere to send them except to jail. In Hernando County there are very few alternative resources and what resources there are, are extremely underfunded.
People with mental illness are being punished and treated as criminals because of the illness they have. Prisons have become the mental institutions of America. Prisons are not equipped to handle mental illness. As a result the atrocities committed are too often beyond belief.
Who is to blame? We all are. We fund jails and prisons to the tune of millions of dollars a year, while financial care for the mentally ill has dwindled to nearly nothing. According to research done in 2006, NAMI on a national level ranks Florida 48th among the states in per-capita spending on mental health. We are living in a wonderful county, in a wonderful state. This ranking makes me sad, but we are not alone; this is happening all across America. The tragedies we hear and read about in the news are the evidence.
Forty people met at the Hernando County courthouse on Feb. 15 to discuss the possibilities of starting a mental health court. Those present were stakeholders in the mental health system and the judicial system. Nearly three hours were spent in discussion. Should we do it? Can we do it? How can we do it? And most important, where will the funding come from?
There were no answers available, but there was an agreement by all concerned that a mental health court is needed. The next step will be to divide into committees to discuss these concerns. Hopefully, the next meeting will provide some answers. We wait and wonder.
My thanks go out to Jean Rags, Hernando County director of Health and Human Services, Karen Nicolai, clerk of the circuit court, and Kathleen Lonergen, drug court coordinator, who have been so instrumental in beginning this dialogue. And many thanks to all those who have taken the time to listen and be aware that mental illness is not a crime.
Let the dialogue continue. Let the "baby steps" turn into a run. Everyone benefits.
Darlene Linville is president of NAMI Hernando. For more information, call the Beautiful Mind Outreach Center (352) 684-0004 or visit namihernando.org. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.