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Published: Wednesday, 2/20/2013

Closing the gaps

As many as 25 percent of American prison inmates have a serious mental illness. In Ohio, as in the rest of the country, more than 95 percent of them will eventually return to their communities.

So ensuring that mentally ill prisoners maintain treatment and medications after their release is an important investment for every community to make. Without it, mentally ill ex-prisoners will probably return to one of Ohio’s state prisons, where they each cost taxpayers more than $25,000 a year.

The Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board met last week with social-service agencies and mental health consumers to identify gaps in service and care. Board members are looking for ways to close those gaps through better communication and cooperation.

Most states, including Ohio, do a lousy job of ensuring that mentally ill inmates get proper treatment and medications while they’re in jail or prison and when they leave. Across the country, police officers — not trained social workers — have become first responders to mentally ill people in crisis.

Even without making major legislative and policy changes or spending a lot of money, communities can do better. It starts with correctional agencies, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers working together.

As discussions continue in Lucas County, corrections officials, especially those from the county jail, must stay at the table. Through neglect and bad policy, county jails have become some of the state’s, and nation’s, largest mental-health institutions.

Community mental health agencies can help by training deputies and corrections officers to recognize mental illness. Those with symptoms should be evaluated by a mental health professional within a few hours of entering a jail. Through cooperative agreements with law enforcement agencies, mental health professionals could even assess some people at the scene of a police call and take them directly to treatment.

Cutting through red tape to ensure that needed medications are not disrupted when people enter and leave a jail is another priority. Hours, even minutes, can make a huge difference in a crisis.

By working with community agencies, county sheriffs can ensure that mentally ill people who leave their jails understand court orders, have prescriptions and connections with medical and mental health service providers, and can get to appointments. Efforts such as these can lower recidivism rates without costing a lot of money, but they take cooperation and communication.

By bringing community agencies together to identify service gaps, the mental health board has taken a good first step. Now the board and community must follow up with a plan to close gaps in mental health care, especially for people who are leaving jail or prison.

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