Giving a voice to silent suffering: Sheriff’s office takes on a new partner to help raise awareness of mental health

September 7, 2018

Part of law enforcement officer’s job is to defuse a situation before it gets out of hand.

Another part is keeping the spark from being lit in the first place.

That’s where a better understanding of mental illness can help – and where a new partnership between the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Office and the National Alliance on Mental Illness comes in.

The department is teaming up NAMI Sauk Area to take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with mental illness by spreading awareness, encouraging people to seek help, providing resources, and training deputies to better understand and deal with people suffering from mental health issues.

“We want to provide the best assistance to the mentally ill in the county, and this partnership can help do that,” Whiteside County Sheriff John Booker said.

The assistance will come from planned initiatives such as the Family-to-Family program and family support groups – a strategy borrowed from Lee County, where law enforcement agencies and NAMI collaborated on similar efforts.

The programs are designed to educate family members and caregivers of people living with mental illness, and provide information on coping mechanisms and medication.

“We were so excited when Whiteside reached out to us for help,” NAMI President Tracy Brooks said.

Taking another page from Lee County’s playbook, the sheriff’s office plans to create a Whiteside County Crisis Intervention Team, to identify and help people in the early stages of mental illness. In Lee County the police department, sheriff’s office, Sinnissippi Centers, KSB and NAMI formed a similar team.

Whiteside’s team will coordinate efforts to spot red flags: people who miss their appointments, aren’t taking their medications, or are showing noticeable signs of a deterioration in their condition, and then intervene before their condition gets out of control and they wind up in jail, the hospital or worse.

The intervention team will consist mainly of department personnel who will have to complete week-long training on how to handle situations with a mentally ill person.

Across the nation, jails and prisons – settings which weren’t designed for mental health care – have had to deal with a growing number of inmates with mental health issues, which has led to overcrowding as the line between people who need help and people who need jail time becomes blurred. In addition, when people with mental health issues are jailed, it can exacerbate underlying conditions.

“Sometimes mental health issues leads to breaking the law, but locking up everyone all the time isn’t the answer,” Booker said.

The sheriff’s office and NAMI Sauk Area also plan to put on a presentation, “In Our Own Voice,” sometime this month or next. The presentation will feature two people with mental illness discussing their journey to recovery.

In the meantime, the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Office will investigate previous incidents it’s handled where mental health was a factor, reach out and provide assistance to the people involved, Booker added.

Down the road, he said, “We may expand to other agencies in the future who also want to provide services for those with mental health issues.”

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