County addressing mental health needs in the community
Columbus Telegram - 3/2/2020
Mar. 2--As the conversation regarding mental health continues at the state and national levels, local leaders are taking action to implement solutions in hopes to better the community.
In 2019, the Platte County Board of Supervisors budgeted almost $13,000 to address mental health issues those in the law enforcement and justice fields have come across through their everyday work. The decision to fund these efforts came after a presentation by then-Platte County Deputy Attorney Elizabeth Lay in mid-2019. Lay handled various mental health commitments on behalf of the county attorney's office before stepping away from county employment recently.
"I am so excited about this programming," Lay told The Telegram. "We already have people utilizing the funding and I think it is going to help a lot of people get on the path towards better choices and a better life."
The Supervisors put money toward three aspects of mental health programs to address local needs. First, the board approved $5,000 in the Platte County Sheriff's Office budget to fund evaluations for defendants in criminal cases that cannot afford the evaluation on their own. To be eligible, defendants must be part of a pending adult case, be appointed an attorney by the court, and participating in a plea deal that contemplates an evaluation and treatment to be eligible for the funds.
The board also approved $5,000 in the General Assistance budget for counseling services for defendants in criminal cases that cannot afford treatment on their own. The same eligibility requirements exist for these funds as for the other. The county will pay up to three sessions for a defendant, according to Lay.
The board put an additional $2,500 toward mental health treatment costs in the Adult Diversion Program, which aims to provide an alternative to court for eligible adult offenders charged with lower-level offenses.
"I think it is safe to say that they understand how big of an issue this is for our community," Lay said about the Board of Supervisors.
Funding mental health programs was important when considering the future of the county as a whole, according to Platte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry Engdahl. He said more people are facing mental health problems in the area each year, noting that it's unfortunate some of those folks end up in a prison cell because of it.
"We need to look after everybody, including those with mental health problems," Engdahl said. "We're striving and hoping to make a positive influence."
Coming from Lincoln, Lay moved to town seven years ago and said she has seen firsthand what happens when people with mental illness don't have the support they need to get better.
"It's awful to see that cycle -- it's a vicious cycle," she said. "They do things they normally wouldn't do. It's really important to have someone who is sitting back and trying to figure out how we solve that."
Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff said he believes there is a direct correlation to mental health and criminal activity, noting there have been many people who have served time in the local facility that have mental health problems, substance abuse issues, and sometimes, both.
Although the sheriff's office was already working with a mental health professional, Wemhoff said he was all ears when Lay approached him about how the sheriff's office could help identify mental health problems in the area. The goal was to develop a plan that would have minimal impact on the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's office, while also being able to make something like an evaluation work within officers' other duties.
"It was beneficial having other supervisors here at the sheriff's office understanding and recognizing the benefits of working with such a program," he said.
Mental health hits home for Lay. She suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of her first child, and though her anxiety went away, for the most part, she acknowledged she struggles with it to some degree even today.
"I, however, am lucky enough to have had needed resources available to me and to know where to find resources when I needed them," Lay said, noting she has seen family members and friends deal with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and more and watched how the effects of those diseases radiate through family units and wreak havoc in people's lives.
"So many people don't know where to turn when things go south. So many people don't have resources available to them."
Having lived in larger communities, Lay emphasized there is a gap right now between what can be done for mental health in urban areas and the rural ones. Lay said she has seen more and more people she deals with in the mental health system enter the criminal system and vice-versa.
"That is why I am so passionate about making sure people have the help they need when they need it," Lay said. "People are dying, and if we can save lives, then we have a duty to do so. I am so proud that our county now has a hand in that. I think it's a really big step for a smaller county to take initiative on that and say, 'OK, we're not getting enough help in this area. We need to do something.'"
Wemhoff said he doesn't believe the issue will ever go away completely and the impact of the funds might not be seen for a while. But, he noted, he believes they will make a difference down the line.
"I would say these funds will be more likely to benefit the County Attorney's Office as they evaluate and access each case, as they attempt to do what is best for the community as a whole," Wemhoff said. "Together we recognize that many individuals currently incarcerated are suffering from mental health and if we can get them the help and support they need to keep them out of jail, this would be a direct relation to less criminal activity."
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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