Bexar County policy on mental health model discussed at White House

County officials invited to DC to discuss mental illness in justice system

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County has been a model for the rest of the nation on dealing with mental health in the justice system. A team of county officials went to the White House this month for a meeting about those strategies.

No matter where you go in the nation, there are people struggling with mental illness. That's why the White House has a new initiative to steer mentally ill and homeless people into treatment and away from jail.

"The criminalization of mental illness. In short, if you're sick, you go to jail. It didn't make any sense. This community has done some very innovative sorts of things," said Gilbert Gonzalez, director of the Bexar County Mental Health Department.

Gonzalez said 21 percent of Bexar County Jail inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness. Of those inmates, 60 percent have been to jail six or more times.

Bexar County Judicial Services director Mike Lozito said it's often for small, non-violent crimes.

"Our goal is to safely release individuals to the community that are low risk and provide treatment programs for them," Lozito said.

In order to do that, they have to identify who needs the help.

A new strategy adopted in Bexar County a year ago is to ask people coming into the county magistrate four questions:

1) Have you ever been to a doctor for mental illness?

2) Have you ever been prescribed medicine for mental illness?

3) Have you ever considered or attempted suicide?

4) Are you thinking about suicide right now?

Gonzalez, Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and other representatives presented this strategy at the White House earlier this month to other community leaders from around the nation. The Bexar County representatives took home a few ideas too.

"We have a large number of individuals who have mental health issues plus substance abuse issues. Our next step is: How do we address individuals with substance abuse and can we have the proper programs to divert those individuals," Lozito said.

They said the focus is addressing the needs of “super utilizers” -- chronic homeless individuals with mental illness, substance abuse and health problems who cycle through the nation’s jails and emergency rooms. With these newer strategies, agencies will be better able to identify “super utilizers” and redirect them to more appropriate systems of care.

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