Community action helps keep mentally ill out of jail

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Nic Carroll returned to live with his family in October 2017 after finishing treatment for the 20th time. From left to right, Maliyah, 11, Nic, Harlee, 5, Melissa and Trey, 12 . (Nic Carroll)

Nic Carroll joined a gang when he was 11. He’s actually an ex-criminal and ex-gang member.

He was inspired by gangster movies such as “The Godfather” and motivated by a desire to protect his mother from an abusive stepfather.

He said he wanted to be the next Scarface. “All I really knew was crime.”

His criminal activities heavily involved drugs, which led to his own drug addiction. In his own words, Carroll said doing drugs for a number of years messed him up mentally.

“I believe a lot of my mental illness … (is) mostly from drugs.”

Carroll said he would self-medicate in an effort to stay high.

Everything changed when Carroll was facing prison again and realized he didn’t want to miss his three kids — Trey, Maliyah and Harlee — growing up.

Carroll convinced the Utah County Mental Health Court program to give him a fourth chance — he had already used his first, second and third chances — and thankfully, they gave it to him, putting him back on the road to recovery.

“Mental Health Court was a great foundation,” Carroll said. “It’s where I started.”

Now, Carroll doesn’t take any medication, not even Aleve or ibuprofen for pain, because taking Aleve just once made him feel the pull toward addiction again.

“I just have to put it in God’s hands,” he said. “I’m completely substance free.”

Approximately 24 percent of state prisoners nationwide have a recent history of a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.

However, more and more states are working to help people with mental illness stay out of prison and get the treatment they need through the Crisis Intervention Team and mental health courts.

Crisis Intervention Team Executive Director Ron Bruno explained that the teams exist to “build partnerships between criminal justice services and behavioral health services within a community.”

Crisis Intervention Team provides training for law enforcement, first responders and community members who are in a position to support local law enforcement. Training includes tools and techniques for dealing with crisis situations, particularly with people who might be having some type of emotional crisis.

Bruno said Crisis Intervention Team also works with local law enforcement and behavioral health centers to advocate for more accessible behavioral health services.

Provo law enforcement has taken advantage of the team’s training, according to Sgt. Joe Otte.

“It’s very good training to be able to help folks with mental health issues,” Otte said. “(It) focuses on the specific mental health problems that people can have and different categories that they can fall into and ways you can mitigate their situations and help them — put them in touch with the resources they need to get them through what they’re experiencing.”

According to Bruno, Crisis Intervention Team officers are often called “to check the welfare of individuals who may have a serious or persistent mental illness” and whose behavior or actions have demonstrated a threat to themselves. Of course, these types of calls would not lead to an arrest.

If someone with a mental illness is arrested for a minor felony or misdemeanor, he or she can be screened for participation in Mental Health Court” by attorney request.

According to Utah County mental health professional and the local Mental Health Court coordinator Dean Anderson, a person must meet certain qualifications to participate in Mental Health Court.

“It depends on the type of charges (the person has) and the type of illness (he or she) has,” Anderson explained. “(The case) goes to the prosecutor and the prosecution; they then look and see if the legal criteria are met for Mental Health Court. If the legal criteria are met and the person seems to be a logical, potentially good choice for the Mental Health Court, then the person is referred to mental health for an assessment.”

Mental health professionals at Wasatch Mental Health make the assessments for Utah County, which includes evaluating clinical needs and whether the court can provide the proper resources.

But that’s not all. Anderson said the final decision also depends on a person’s “willingness to participate and willingness to obey the rules.” Rules include participating in in-patient treatment the court deems appropriate, making regular appearances at court and attending support groups.

“The whole idea is to give them treatment so they can learn how to manage their illness and they don’t re-offend,” Anderson said.

Bruno referred to the philosophy of mental health courts as “carrot-and-stick.”

“The carrot is that if somebody participates in Mental Health Court, they are going to be given access to treatment. They’re going to be given access to case management. If they need help getting employment, they can get assistance with that,” Bruno said.

Perhaps the biggest pull for participating in Mental Health Court is a compliant person does not have to go to jail.

“They get to live out in the community,” Bruno said.

People participating in Mental Health Court are also given opportunities to improve if they slip up, according to Anderson. But Bruno added that the court can sanction people who slip up with things like community service or serving some time in jail before the next court appearance.

Carroll said his time in the program taught him to take accountability for his actions.

Each time he “slipped up,” Carroll would, of his own volition, perform two or more hours of community service because he knew that’s what the judge would assign him. He credits Mental Health Court with giving him structure and expectations.

“By doing that, it made me stronger,” he said.

Participating in the full Mental Health Court program can last from about 10 months to 18 months, according to Anderson. The program includes three phases, which start with requiring the person in question to appear in court and attend weekly treatments before easing off to once-a-month court visits and treatment as appropriate. At the end of Mental Health Court, the person graduates.

Instead of going home to his family after graduating from Mental Health Court, Carroll chose to seek further treatment at a sober living center in Heber. He spent a total of 67 days there, seeing his kids only once.

During his time there, Carroll became a manager and helped other people in recovery. He also made life-changing friends through Building Beginnings, a non-profit organization founded by Brett Griffiths and Ryan Hymans. The organization provides work experience for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol and helps them find housing. Carroll’s focus is housing.

A study published in 2007 found that graduating from mental health court reduced the chance of recidivism by 39 percent for minor felonies and 54 percent for violent crimes, supporting both Anderson’s and Bruno’s assertions about the effectiveness of mental health courts.

While mental health court can help people with mental illnesses stay out of jail and reduce repeat offenses, treatment options still have room for improvement.

Anderson said he thinks there is always room for more resources for the mentally ill, especially for people who do not have insurance of any kind.

Bruno agreed. “We can help individuals if we have better access to mental health services,” he said.

Bruno is part of a newly formed committee called the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee. The committee reports to Congress about the state of mental health care in the United States and works to coordinate among all federal departments. The committee’s first report was released on Dec. 13, 2017.

Aside from resources, Anderson said another problem when it comes to mental health care in the United States is the stigma around mental illness.

“(Mental health diseases) are biological problems like diabetes,” Anderson said. “They’re just in the brain.”

Otte emphasized the importance of withholding judgement and being kind.

“Because someone has a mental health issue doesn’t mean they’re a danger to the community. It means it’s somebody who’s dealing with a hardship,” Otte said. “The more compassionate we can be towards people with mental health issues, and help introduce them and encourage them to accept resources that are available, I think that’s a step in the right direction.”

Carroll said he likes to read with his kids and bring them to work with him. His life is totally different now, and he intends to keep it that way.

“I like to think that God has put all this in my life,” Carroll said. “I get to be a husband. I get to be a friend, a leader, a teacher, a dad.”

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