News Article Details

Craig, state officials, meet to discuss mental health

Union-Recorder - 8/8/2018

Aug. 08--MACON, Ga. -- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults is diagnosed with a mental illness in America.

The stories surrounding mental illness are serious, humbling and often inspiring.

Counties across the state have witnessed firsthand the impact of mental illness daily, as communities grapple with how to address the issue.

Baldwin County Commissioner Henry Craig, chair of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia's newly-formed Standing Committee on Mental Health, was among the organizers of a recent mental health summit held in Macon to discuss ways communities can address the issue. The event featured county commissioners, law enforcement and judicial officials from all around the state. Presenters addressed Georgia's mental health crisis and provided information on initiatives for dealing with the issue that have seen success in other parts of the country.

Craig is the sixth district representative on the ACCG (Association County Commissioners of Georgia) board of managers. With this position, he communicates across county lines and shares ideas with other commissioners across the state.

Mental health experts were also present at last week's summit. Speakers included Kim H. Jones, executive director Georgia NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health), Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), and Sheila Pierce, director, Prescription Monitoring Program Georgia Department of Public Health, among others.

In an opening statement, Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen set the tone for the meeting.

"This meeting right here is the most important meeting you could go to because it could be one of your loved ones," Allen remarked.

Craig also stressed the importance of the meeting.

"In the room today, there are elected state officials, state commissioners, superior court judges, state court judges, probate court judges, attorneys, county commissioners, county staff, law enforcement, jail staff, and more," Craig said. "All are here because we know we have a problem. Have you ever been to another event about mental illness or opioid addiction where these types of people are in the same room? It's a significant type of event. It's an event that is the starting point, its one step toward doing something different about opioid issues and mental health issues."

Craig said there are several problems that counties and governments have when it comes to handling mental health issues -- the fact that it's a moral, fiscal, and public safety issue among them.

"Every community in our state has the same problem -- mental health and opioid issues -- it's become a crisis in our communities, and I would like to address that crisis in three ways. It's a public safety crisis," Craig said. "In my community alone, a son stabbed his mother to death and lived with her for two days before someone determined it. At the hind end of the event, everybody knew he was mentally ill -- his neighbors knew it, his family knew it and the criminal justice system knew it, but there was nothing we could do about it. Another story in my community, and these stories are the same in every community, it just has a different variation to it, a grandmother and her grandchildren were walking out of a convenience store and a man stood up behind the ice machine at the entrance and killed the woman by shooting her in the back of the head. Everybody knew he was mentally ill. ... There are stories like this all throughout our state, our counties, all throughout the country."

Craig also pointed out the moral issue surrounding mental health. He said that the criminal justice system is too often used as an outlet for the mentally ill.

"We have a moral issue," Craig said. "If a person has heart disease, we will give that person compassion and move them into a hospital. If a person has cancer, we will help that person. We will have compassion for that person. When a person is mentally ill, too often, he goes to jail and the criminal justice system provides the help that the community, the families, the government did not provide. Our judicial system and law enforcement know that it's morally wrong. Everyone here probably agrees that it's morally wrong. We need to find a different solution for those that are ill with a mental illness -- keyword, ill."

Lastly, Craig addressed the fiscal issue of mental health for counties.

"In Baldwin County, a small county, we spend out of the general funds of the county, $150,000 to $200,000 a year just on psychotropic drugs for those who are mentally ill," Craig said. "The cost of housing those persons who are mentally ill in the county is very expensive and in Baldwin County alone, 60 to 65 percent of all of our prisoners in the jail are mentally ill. We must do something different. ... The largest mental institution right now in the country is the Los Angeles County Jail, the second largest mental institution right now is the Dade County Jail in Miami. And in Baldwin County, the largest mental institution is the county jail."

After Craig spoke, several other experts, change-makers and officials discussed opioid addiction and mental health and how governments can change the tactics they take when approaching people who have a diagnosed mental illness.

"This is a beginning of a long conversation, we hope," Craig said. "ACCG, with their continued support, will make this a continued effort."

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(c)2018 The Union-Recorder (Milledgeville, Ga.)

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