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Dept. of Health and Welfare to propose changes to mental health laws

Mental Health law change proposals

POCATELLO, Idaho - Lawmakers are being asked to make some big changes to mental health laws this upcoming legislative session.

Currently, there are an increasing number of people incarcerated with mental health issues and both the Department of Health and Welfare along with some local sheriffs are saying enough is enough.

"It's high time the state starts looking at the core root of what a lot of these problems are," Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen said. "We can't keep using jails and the criminal justice system as a safety net. It was never set up for that."

Sheriff Nielsen said the majority of people incarcerated in his jails are usually arrested on drug-related charges. Out of those, he said most of them are using substances to self-medicate due to mental health-related issues.

However, the current system in the state is set up to overlook those core issues.

"Where we have got jail as the only safe place we can keep our mental health patients, then we have got some problems," Nielsen said.

So, the dept. is proposing two solutions: the first is to create crisis centers.

State Hospital South Administrator Tracey Sessions said, under the current system, police are called out to a crisis situation and then they have to transport the individual in custody to the emergency room.

Often times the police officer has to wait in the emergency room while that individual is being evaluated to see if they have to stay or not.

However, these police officers can take them straight to the crisis center, where they are connected to services, evaluations and medication quickly and more readily.

"Then they don't need to be in the psychiatric facility long-term," Sessions said. "They may need follow-up care, they may need help with some depression, or they may need help with their substance abuse problem."

Sessions said she, along with law enforcement officers and state lawmakers have visited other states who have already enacted this system such as Montana, and said this is a more-efficient way to get people the proper care they need.

She also said this is a more cost-effective way of getting patients this care, so taxpayers will not be paying for the bills accrued by the various entities involved in admitting someone through the current system.

"Part of the challenge is that part of it is on the police department, part of it is on the court system, part of it is on the county system...and then there's a transport expense from the county, and then the court expense again, and then once the gavel goes down and they're committed to the Dept. of Health and Welfare, then it becomes a state expense again," Session said.

The second proposed legislation is to combine substance abuse and mental health into one behavioral health system. 

Both Sessions and Nielsen said often times, the core issues behind substance abuse stem from mental health-related issues.

Sessions said by combining these two, it will help officials better understand how to help these patients.

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