County officials see limited mental health services in area

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

There are three mental health facilities in Carroll County, which local officials acknowledge is not nearly enough to serve the county’s population.

Under a new state law, Washington County will use state money to establish a crisis stabilization unit, a place where police officers can take people who are experiencing mental health crises. The unit will serve Carroll, Madison, Washington and Benton counties. This means that Carroll County will have access to this service in addition to the other facilities. But the unit will have 16 beds to serve four counties, and Carroll County officials fear it will immediately fill up solely with Washington County patients, limiting its use for Carroll County.

The unit will be located in the Washington County Judicial Annex in Fayetteville, across the street from the county courthouse, Washington County Judge Joseph Wood said. He said he hopes to open the crisis stabilization unit in mid-October. Officers will then be able to begin bringing patients to the unit.

Eureka Springs Police Chief Thomas Achord said he thinks the program could help Carroll County residents if legislators continue to expand it. If they do not “it’s putting a new paint job on an old car, basically.” He said he hopes they add more beds to the unit or create additional facilities.

“It will be good for us, and we are looking forward to it,” Berryville Police Chief Robert Bartos said. “Unfortunately, I think it’ll probably fill up overnight, and they may not have the room to deal with it.”

Green Forest Police Chief John Bailey agreed with his fellow police chiefs.

“I just wish that we could push our legislators to create some or find the funding that it takes to have more facilities like what’s going on over there,” Bailey said.

A long-term problem

The responsibility for mental health care began to fall on police departments after President John F. Kennedy started closing mental hospitals, places that were renowned for their abusive tactics, in the early 1960s. He moved to replace these hospitals with Community Mental Health Centers in an effort to create more outpatient mental health care. But many states did not back his plan, leaving people with mental health problems with nowhere to go.

These people sometimes became homeless. About a third of people who are homeless have serious, untreated mental illnesses, according to research compiled by the Treatment Advocacy Center. They also often are arrested on petty crimes associated with having mental illnesses, like loitering or disturbing the peace, linking them to the criminal justice system. Today in Arkansas, the odds of a person with a mental illness being in a jail or prison as opposed to being in a hospital are 3.3 to 1, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Arkansas’ new law establishing crisis stabilization units is meant to counteract this. The unit will allow patients to stay for a maximum of 72 hours with the goal of stabilization.

Washington County officials are looking to the Endeavor Foundation to fund the renovations to the Judicial Annex, where the unit will be, as the state only allotted money toward the operation of the unit, Wood said.

Patients will have to voluntarily go to the unit, and Fayetteville’s Ozark Guidance Counseling branch will be responsible for offering care at the unit, Wood said. He said he hopes this will mean the unit will be able to connect people with mental health problems to Ozark Guidance’s outpatient services, allowing for a more long-term solution.

Training

The new law mandates that all police departments send 20 percent of their workforces to Crisis Intervention Training, where officers learn to communicate with people with mental health problems.

Brian Young, the assistant Eureka Springs police chief, attended CIT, and he said he plans to send an additional officer as well. At CIT, he learned how to identify different types of mental health disorders and how to de-escalate situations that involve mentally ill people.

“You’re there to help them get the help that they need,” Young said.

In communicating with people with mental health problems, Young learned to use similar tactics to those he learned in negotiations, including that he must remain calm.

“If you’re calm, they’ll eventually become calm,” Young said.

Young will be responsible for transporting people to the unit once it opens, as CIT officers are the only people who are allowed to do so.

Young thinks the unit will be helpful, but he said it might be even more helpful to have more services in the Carroll County area. Not only is he concerned that the Washington County stabilization unit will fill up, excluding Carroll County from using it, Carroll County police departments will have to pay officers to transport patients to the unit, which could get expensive. Young said he thinks the state needs a more long-term solution to help people.

A very real need

Robert Parke, an outpatient counselor at the Berryville Ozark Guidance branch, also sees the need for more mental health services.

“Mental illness is more common than people realize,” Parke said.

The No. 1 diagnosis for Ozark Guidance is depression, and the No. 2 diagnosis is bipolar disorder, Parke said.

“You end up putting people in jail that actually need mental health,” Berryville Mayor Tim McKinney said.

County and city governments look to the state for support for mental health issues, and the support is not there, McKinney said.

“It bothers me that they seem to have fallen through the cracks,” Green Forest Mayor Charlie Reece said.

Reece is also the chairman of Boston Mountain Rural Health Center’s board of directors, and he said it can be extremely difficult to recruit health professionals, including those for mental health, to rural areas.

“We get out here in a rural setting, and it’s hard to get people the help they need,” Bailey said.

Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry also agreed that there should be more services.

Bailey said that people often don’t get help for mental health problems because of the social stigma surrounding the issue.

“It’s too easy to label someone crazy, and there’s that stigma that crazy is wrong,” Bailey said. “People just need to understand that people sometimes have problems, but we don’t know or fully understand how to address those problems, so it’s almost like mental health is taboo. It’s a thing that most people don’t want to discuss. Most people don’t want to know that a person is depressed.”

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