MEDFORD, Ore. — People struggling with mental illnesses can sometimes turn to extreme measures to get help.
There are about 350 mental health court systems across the nation. It’s a specialty court where someone who has committed crimes and has a mental illness is admitted in to get treatment. If they’re successful, they get their charges dropped.
In Oregon, 11 counties have this system and one of those is in Josephine County.
“Many examples of people who have gone from living in the woods to being totally psychotic and being on the verge of freezing to death, to living in housing, and having benefits,” says Josephine County Judge Pat Wolke. “And having a decent life.”
Since the court started in 2009, 58 participants have gone through. Out of those, 27 graduated, 20 were unsuccessful and the rest are still pending. All chose to enter this type of system.
Judge Wolke adds, “They will decide, yes I want to do this because not only do I want to avoid jail time, but I want positive benefits, I really want to change my life. I don’t want to be living on the street, I don’t want to be messing around with police,” said Wolke.
One of the participants in mental health court is Stephanie who suffers from Bi-Polar Disorder. She says the court system has helped her on the road to recovery, “Actually, the government here in my town has been more supportive than my family.”
“I trust them to do the right thing. I’ve got my trust in the system than some people i do in my family,” said Stephanie.
Stephanie got into the system by getting in trouble, on purpose. “That was my way of reaching out for help, just so they could get me the right kind of help. People would say I would call the cops and I would say, go ahead. Call the cops. Thinking they would house me in the jail and the jail would get me somewhere that would get me on my medication and get me stabilized.”
Funding for mental health court in Josephine County will be cut soon. By March, a federal grant for the system will end.
“We’re going to go back to the way it was before which was used in embedded services so then it doesn’t cost the tax payers anything,” said Judge Wolke.
Jackson County Judge Lisa Grief says funding isn’t the only reason a mental health court isn’t running in Jackson County, “For now, we’re doing what we can.”
“I mean, we’re strapped here in terms of court space. So for us its not just a money thing, it is also a time thing for our court system as well. Even if we had funding I don’t think we would have a mental health court.”
Though, for Judge Wolke, he plans to continue the system even without the funds and less staff, “My argument is, is that they would be doing, working with these cases anyway, a lot less effectively.”
“If we didn’t have mental health court, we’d still have a lot of mentally ill people coming through the system. The public defender would be working with them, the prosecutor would be working with them, the probation department would be working with them.”
It’s violent events like the Connecutict school shooting that is pushing the lack of mental health services into the spot light.
Congressman Greg Walden adds, “In the state that has the third toughest gun laws in the country to begin with, the common area where we could find agreement I think is working on the area of mental health.”
“So we get at these individuals and get them the help they need to prevent these acts from occurring. I mean, even the president and most people are one of the biggest advocates for the strictest gun control laws in the books will admit they probably wouldn’t have stopped that shooting.”
While national lawmakers begin to address this issue in Washington, Judge Wolke is working at the state level, so a shooting like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary doesn’t happen in Josephine County.
He wants to modify Oregon’s Civil Commitment Law, broadening the spectrum. This law sets the criteria to determine when court-ordered treatment is needed for a mentally ill person.
“We have a legislative concept, that’s not to say we have a law yet but we’re starting the process,” Judge Wolke explains. “What’s going to change is the definition of what a mentally ill person is. Right now the definition is extremely high so there’s checks and balances between scooping people off the street and putting them in a mental hospital. Its too high.”
But for those who struggle with a mental illness, they say the public needs more education and less prejudice.
“A word of advice for people who don’t have mental illnesses, if they see someone that does have a mental illness, they should not ever say the word crazy,” Stephanie advises. “That’s very uneducated and wrong. “I’m a person too. Just like someone that’s diabetic, that needs insulin. If I don’t take my medication I get sick.”
“We’re people, and many people have disabilities,” Debbie Garoote stresses. She suffers from schizoaffective disorder. “We have to stop treating them like, like they’re not deserving of a decent life.”
Debbie also wants those who struggle from mental illnesses to know there is hope, “If they can reach somewhere inside themselves and trust somebody, that the people are really trying to get them well, that they can.”
“But maybe not completely well, but they can recover. There is recovery.”
From those directly involved with helping the mentally ill to the people living with a mental illness, they show that it’s time to start paying attention to what has been largely ignored for awhile. They hope the community will push for change that this state desperately needs.