Local mental health providers aren’t sure what the impact will be following a new policy at the Summit County Jail not to accept violent mentally ill people arrested by area police.
“We know that there are people who would be better served in other settings,” said Jerry Craig, executive director of Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, which oversees county funding for mental health agencies in the area. “Our concern is that we can safely treat those people in a hospital setting.”
Sheriff Drew Alexander enacted the policy Monday, requiring that the violent mentally ill and developmentally disabled be treated first at a hospital or other psychiatric center before being booked into the jail.
The policy is expected to put extra pressure on police, area hospitals and mental health centers.
The jail has been a dumping ground for those people, who would be better treated elsewhere, the sheriff said. Alexander has long complained that it’s inhumane — and unsafe for other inmates and staff — to place mentally ill people in the jail.
His staff has estimated that two or three people a week might be turned away. The sheriff emphasized that there’s no plan to reject everyone with a mental illness, just those who are violent.
Alexander said he has received positive feedback from colleagues about the policy — perhaps the first of its kind in the country.
Craig said the county agency shares the same goal as the sheriff to treat people with serious mental illness and keep them out of the jail when possible.
“We’ve been talking about this for several years and we’ve been working closely with the sheriff along with the greater mental health community on ways that we can improve care at the jail,” he said.
Those talks have included trying to prevent mentally ill people from going to jail and making sure they receive appropriate care when they are released. The community has a respected national reputation for working on mental health issues, Craig said.
“We’ve invested a significant amount of dollars in the jail system to make sure that we’re providing the services,” he said.
He added that he wants to work with the sheriff on the screening process used for identifying people with mental illness.
James Crouse, vice president of marketing at Portage Path Behavioral Health in Akron, said he’s not sure how the policy will affect his agency, which could see an increase in patients.
“Our facility is not equipped to handle involuntary people,” he said.
He said Portage Path will look to Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services for guidance.
Summit Psychological Associates Inc., which provides mental health counseling at the jail through a county contract, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C., and the Mental Illness Policy Organization in New York City were unaware of any other community with such a policy.
“This is so new and different,” said DJ Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization in New York City. “It’s emblematic of the mess we’re in.”
He praised the sheriff’s stance and said he hopes it sparks a discussion about addressing the nationwide problem of sending the seriously mentally ill to jail and prison instead of treating them.
One of the solutions, Jaffe said, is focusing mental health dollars on programs that treat people with serious mental illnesses and “not just making people happier.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.