Douglas County Receives National Recognition for Tracking Mental Illness

Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers speaks during a press conference announcing Douglas County’s selection as an Innovator County by the Stepping Up Initiative on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, at the Douglas County Jail. The county was recognized for collecting data about serious mental illness among the jail’s population. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

A national initiative to address the growing number of people incarcerated with serious mental illness is recognizing efforts by Douglas County Corrections to collect better data on the problem.

Douglas County Corrections is the 12th county nationally to earn an Innovator County status from the Stepping Up Initiative, a joint program of the National Association of Counties, American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Council of State Governments Justice Center that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails nationally.

“We want to become a jail that not only treats mental illness but become a jail that promotes men­tal health throughout the facility,” said Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers.

Myers said the county is taking steps toward improving support of inmates with mental health, as well as addressing systematic changes to the criminal justice system by working with law enforcement of­ficers, prosecutors, defenders and court officials, as well as com­munity partners and other govern­mental agencies.

“I do not feel this is an award,” Myers said. “It is a responsibility.”

The county hopes to keep more people with mental illness out of jail in the first place and help those end up incarcerated to seek sup­port so they don’t return.

“Our jail has become the state’s largest mental health treatment fa­cility, and that must change,” said Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson. “Jail is the absolute worse place to be treated for mental health.”

Myers said the jail cares for about 215 people daily with a se­rious mental illness – that’s about 17% of its average population. He said severe mental illness includes schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, major depression and obsessive-compul­sive disorder.

Myers said the severity level of mental illness is increasing among the jail’s population, making it a challenge to balance safety con­cerns for staff and inmates with concern for the well-being of those who are the most seriously ill.

Vicki Maca, director of criminal justice and behavioral health ini­tiatives for Region 6 Behavioral Health, said four key metrics are now being tracked: How many people in jail have serious mental illness; How long they spend in jail; How often they connected to resources and services in the com­munity prior to their release; and How often they are returning.

“Right now, we have some base­line data that we’re starting to look at,” Maca said. “We’re really try­ing to impact those four key mea­sures in the right way.”

Maca said Douglas County is fortunate to have Myers as its cor­rections director because he is a li­censed mental health practitioner. He took over in October 2018 after a decade as the county’s commu­nity corrections manager.

Myers said he hopes to see a re­duction in how many people with serious mental illness end up in the county jail. Diversion, more options for placement and better identification of mental health cri­sis could help reduce bookings.

Improving programs in the jail and improving coordination with the courts are also goals for the Stepping Up Initiative efforts.

“We do a lot of manual work currently to coordinate with the court system,” Myers said. “It would behoove us all to have that (coordination) become systematic, so these things happen in every single court case.”

At the national level, Borgeson said society should treat mental ill­ness the same as other health con­cerns, and there will continue to be problems until that happens.

Until then, Douglas County can improve how it helps people with mental illness, and it can share the lessons it learns with other coun­ties looking to do the same.

Chris Rodgers, chairman of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, said board con­versations have shifted over the years from a criminal justice focus to one centered around health care.

Douglas County Commissioner Mike Boyle said the commitment transcends partisanship and has the full support of the board.

“I’m so proud of what’s going on,” Boyle said. “There is no dis­agreement on this issue. This is a priority. This is a question of fair­ness, justice and treating people with respect.”

Sarpy County Also Recognized as an Innovator

The Stepping Up Initiative an­nounced that Sarpy County is the 13th county nationally to be desig­nated as an Innovator County.

Officials in Sarpy County of­ficially accepted the designation Wednesday, according to Megan Stubenhofer-Barrett, the county’s communications manager.

Sarpy County formed a Mental Health Leadership Team in 2017 to map how people dealing with mental health crises meet and flow through the criminal justice sys­tem. The aim is redirecting such people toward treatment.

The county plans to open a cri­sis stabilization center for use by Sarpy County law enforcement agencies as an alternative destina­tion – instead of jail – for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Sarpy County is purchasing a 6-acre site near the Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue hospital for the center.

However, after receiving con­cerns from the City of Bellevue about possible commercial devel­opment of the site, the county is now reviewing other options be­fore moving forward.

– Scott Stewart



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