PHOTO: DeKalb County Commission President Ricky Harcrow was one of eight public officials in Alabama named to a task force to support the “Stepping Up Initiative,” which seeks to improve mental health treatment at the county level. (Tyler Pruett | Southern Torch)
By Tyler Pruett, Managing Editor
FORT PAYNE, Ala. — Earlier this month, Lynn T. Beshear, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, announced a state task force to address mental health treatment at the county level.
DeKalb County Commission President Ricky Harcrow was one of the 8 public officials named to the task force. We sat down with Harcrow yesterday to discuss the mental health situation at the county level.
“We’ve talked a long time about the challenges to county governments related to individuals with mental illnesses,” said Harcrow. “When I was President of the Alabama County Commissioners Association, we really started an initiative back then, but it’s took several years to really develop that.”
“The problems are so monumental; there is no easy fix to it,” he explained.
Beshear appointed Harcrow along with George Bowman (Jefferson County Commission), Chris Green (Probate Judge, Blount County), Hardy McCollum (Probate Judge, Tuscaloosa County), Earl Paluzzi (Probate Judge, Pickens County), Kenneth Ellis (Sheriff, Hale County) Hoss Mack (Sheriff, Baldwin County), and Wally Olson (Sheriff, Dade County).
The task force will be undertaking a national initiative that’s being implemented at the county level, the “Stepping Up Initiative,” is a collaboration of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Foundation.
“We were appointed as a task force to study what steps we might take. Because the problem is so expensive for county governments,” Harcrow said. “Every year, 2 million people are put in jails with mental illnesses in the United States; that’s the equivalent of the population of Vermont and New Hampshire.”
Harcrow also explained that mental health issues have a wide ranging effects and are intertwined with other issues.
“Three quarters of those folks with mental illnesses have alcohol and substance abuse problems,” he explained. “And those people tend to come back quicker because of their problems. The cost to the taxpayers is just staggering. We spend two to three times more on adults that require intervention than those without.”
Harcrow also underlined the cost on the county governments and the taxpayers.
“The problem comes when they are put in our jails, and we have to treat them. Which we don’t mind treating them at all, but we don’t have a mechanism to pay for it,” said Harcrow. “Which they are better off in jail than walking the treats is the sad thing. They are at least getting care that way, but it’s evident that the system is not working.”
“I admit, I don’t know what all the answers are, but we’ve got to start somewhere with it,” he added.
The stated goal of the initiative consist of four points: 1. Reduce the number of people with mental illnesses booked into jail, 2. Reduce the length of time people with mental illnesses remain in jai and 3. Increase connections to treatment and 4. Reducing recidivism (returning to jail).
“It will hopefully reduce the ones who return to jail, and hopefully break the never ending cycle. It’s almost a problem that’s insurmountable it seems like,” said Harcrow.
So far, 11 counties so far have adopted the initiative, and DeKalb County will also adopt a resolution in support of it in their first meeting of 2018. So far, Autauga, Blount, Cherokee, Elmore, Etowah, Jefferson, Lowndes, Macon, Madison, Mobile, and Montgomery have passed resolutions.
Harcrow hopes that more will soon join the list.