The Moultrie Observer
The story of the Mental Health Subcommittee — a collaboration between the Archway Project and the Healthy Colquitt Coalition — began in October 2011, but the seed planted that day sprouted so rapidly that it began to bear abundant fruit less than a year later.
So much fruit, with such speed, that readers of The Moultrie Observer voted the subcommittee’s activities the Local Story of the Year for 2012.
The subcommittee began with a brainstorming session in October 2011. Attendees agreed on three focuses, each of which was to have its own working group: Clinical response to mental illness, judicial efforts to get sufferers from mental illness out of the court system and into a productive life, and education and support for both those living with mental illness and their families and friends. All three branches made dramatic progress in 2012.
The founding of the Mental Health Subcommittee was a direct response to the loss of Moultrie’s mental health facility, which was operated under state contract by Georgia Pines. State funding cuts forced Georgia Pines to close the Moultrie center in September 2009. From that time forward, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel reported having more and more mental illness cases they had to deal with.
A key goal of the subcommittee was re-opening of the Georgia Pines facility on North Main Street, which occurred in August 2012.
“We didn’t publicize that right away because we didn’t want them to be flooded,” Wilson said. A ribbon cutting and open house were held in late October.
Georgia Pines, Turning Point Hospital and Colquitt Regional Medical Center share resources to operate the facility. It is open one day a week and serves about half as many people as it did before the 2009 closure.
Wilson quoted Georgia Pines Executive Director Bob Jones as saying, “If we add one more clinical day we think we can serve everyone in Colquitt County that we know about right now.”
But the same problem that closed the center three years ago prevents an immediate expansion: money. Georgia Pines, Turning Point and Colquitt Regional have put as much money into the effort as they can, Wilson said.
“The local community is going to need to look long and hard about how they can support that other clinical day,” she said.
The problems of crime, mental illness and drug use are tangled like ivy. Drug use can cause latent mental illness to manifest. The mentally ill often try to treat their symptoms with alcohol or illegal drugs. Drug users steal to finance their habit. The mentally ill lash out in ways they would not if successfully treated.
And local law enforcement officers have to deal with all of it.
In November 2006, a mentally challenged suspect pulled a knife on three Moultrie police officers trying to arrest him on a theft charge. One of the officers fired three shots that killed Willie J. Banks.
Five years later, the community suffered deja vu when a Moultrie police officer on the city-county SWAT team fatally shot another mentally challenged man, Walter Wayne Peterson, who came at the team with a knife as they tried to arrest him. Peterson, who was accused of breaking a window at a convenience store after an argument with the clerk, had threatened another officer with the knife and barricaded himself in his home.
The difference in the second case was the community’s readiness to confront the challenges of mental illness — perhaps because of the loss of the Georgia Pines mental health facility.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which has a chapter in Albany, offers free training to police and other emergency responders in ways to defuse crises with those living with mental illness. Wilson, a member of the Albany NAMI chapter, helped make the connections, and in March 2012 the first local class graduated from the program. It included three Moultrie police officers, two Colquitt County sheriff’s deputies and two Moultrie firefighters.
Later, Moultrie police Sgt. Rob Rodriguez and E-911 dispatch supervisor Gwendolyn Knighton became trainers in the NAMI program, and they have hosted two classes in crisis intervention themselves. Local agencies as well as police from area towns have attended.
Moultrie Police Chief Frank Lang announced a plan to get every MPD officer certified in the program, a process he said would likely take about two years.
The crisis intervention training was not connected with the Mental Health Subcommittee, but was an obvious response to the community’s mental health needs.
In other progress on the judicial front, the subcommittee has laid the foundation for an Accountability Court — a special court to deal with the mentally ill and drug users.
A person is not sentenced to the programs provided by the new court. A person has to meet certain criteria and must want to be in this process. Typically, the programs to which addicts will be connected run for 18 months. Those who have experience with these court concepts note that it’s not easy. And some addicts will actually choose to go to prison as opposed to seeking help via these programs.
But successes reported by Judge Steve Goss, who runs such a court in Dougherty County, give advocates great hope for getting drug abusers and the mentally ill the treatment they need to return to productive lives, Wilson said.
Superior Court Judge Frank Horkan will administer the court, backed by a team of representatives from throughout the system.
“They’ve got a team working together to get them back on the path to good citizenship,” Wilson said.
The first session will be held in January.
Support and education
The final branch of the Mental Health Subcommittee’s tree has two parts: Establishing support for those with mental illness and their loved ones and educating the community about the disease. In an effort to meet both goals, the subcommittee is establishing Colquitt County’s own chapter of NAMI.
Since June, the community has hosted monthly educational meetings called NAMI Nights. They’re held at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at First United Methodist Church. NAMI-Albany has been a great resource, Wilson said.
“We have responded to participants’ wishes and what they want to know,” she said. The January meeting, for instance, will feature Jason Griner of Turning Point Hospital, who will describe what treatments are available from that facility.
In October, the local chapter participated in the NAMI Walk, an annual fund-raiser for the group. Its team, “ReMinding Moultrie,” raised $3,000 and had two corporate sponsors, Turning Point and Ameris Bank. Participation in the walk was one of the requisites for getting full chapter status, which Wilson expects will come in very early 2013.
Wilson said the chapter must wait until achieving full status before it can sponsor official support groups, but in the meantime it’s hosting “Share and Care,” a place those living with mental illness and their loved ones can come together with others like themselves.
“They need to develop a community of friends who are dealing with the same kinds of issues they’re dealing with,” Wilson said.
NAMI-Colquitt County also graduated its first class in the Family 2 Family program. The program is a 12-week course that teaches family members of those with mental illness about their loved ones’ condition and better prepares them for the issues they face. Nine people from eight families graduated Dec. 10 from that first class.
A similar class called BASICS, targeting parents of children and adolescents with mental illness, is planned soon.
A website is under construction — “One-stop shopping for mental health needs in Colquitt County,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who said she’s surprised and pleased by the rapid success of the subcommittee, is looking forward to big things in 2013 as well.
“The willingness of this community to step up and ask, ‘What can I do to help,’ is just amazing,” she said.