Multiple behavioral-health leaders in Flathead County have turned their attention toward finding ways to divert individuals suffering from mental-health issues from the criminal justice system — a process experts say is costly to taxpayers and doesn’t help the individual in crisis connect to resources that can help them avoid re-entry into the correctional system.
To do this, the stakeholders are using a tool known as sequential intercept mapping (SIM), which was a highlight at the most recent Alliance for a Drug Free Flathead meeting.
At its core, the goal of the map is to help Flathead County “develop a justice system model that does not criminalize mental-health or substance-use disorders, but effectively diverts individuals whose criminal history is secondary to these health issues to effective treatment and recovery services,” according to Katie Loveland, founder of Loveland Consulting LLC, who is also assisting the county with forming their map.
“Often law enforcement or an ambulance are the first to respond to a crisis scene and there is often no real triage or means in our current system to say what’s actually going on with this person and where’s the appropriate place for them,” Loveland said.
She said instead of analyzing a more appropriate location for those experiencing a mental-health crisis, they often end up in jail, the emergency room, or another high-cost, high-intensity system supported by public dollars.
According to Loveland, in Flathead County, an estimated 15,352 adults have a mental illness and 3,985 of those have a “serious mental illness.” In 2017, individuals in the county were sentenced to a collective 541 years of prison for drug convictions alone — a number that came with an estimated $16 million price tag. Overall, 17% of jail admissions have serious mental illness and 64% have some type of mental-health problem.
And mental-health and substance-use disorders often go hand-in-hand. From 2011 to 2017, there was a 195% increase in the number of drug offenses in Flathead County.
Loveland said once individuals with behavioral-health concerns are in the justice system, “they often recidivate.” According to Loveland, one of the worst-case scenarios is when someone experiencing a mental-health crisis is being placed into jail, the ER or elsewhere without a behavioral-health assessment and then are released without being linked to community-cased behavioral-health care providers. The likelihood of them entering the system again is high.
“Once people are discharged there are zero resources to help people connect to services in a meaningful way. Therefore, their chances of having another crisis and coming back into the system increases,” Loveland said.
Earlier this summer a grant from the Montana Health Care Foundation brought together a group of community stakeholders to create the initial map. Those stakeholders included representatives from law enforcement, social-service nonprofits and substance-use treatment.
The map itself is complicated. It shows all community entities one who enters the system may come in contact with, such as the Flathead Valley’s hospitals, law enforcement, the courts and more. And it also lists community prevention and treatment resources that can help individuals in crisis avoid re-entry, such as chemical-dependency clinics, shelters, youth providers, family services and recovery and support options.
More importantly, it highlights opportunities for deflection, including the Center for Restorative Youth Justice, which supports youth diversion and the Program for Assertive Community Treatment that provides intensive, wrap around support for clients suffering from severe, disabling mental illnesses.
The team then pinpointed opportunities for change in the current system. Of the many that made the list, they settled on two priority action areas for Flathead County: develop a co-responder model and eventually offer low barrier supportive housing.
“The co-responder aspect is something we can start working on right away, with the supportive housing option being a more long-term goal,” Loveland said.
The co-responder model would entail building an on-site mobile crisis system that embeds behavioral-health professionals and peer-support specialists among law enforcement entities and would include transportation opportunities, evaluations, data collection and more. As of now, Western Montana Mental Health Center is taking the lead on the project.
The process is still very much in the beginning stages and partners throughout the valley are discussing ways in which they can pool resources to carry out the priority actions.
“It’s a lengthy process where you sit down and say ‘what does our system look like now?’” Loveland said. “Then we can look at the map and know where we want to be and look at community planning to ask ‘now, how do we really get there?’”
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org