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Program aims to reduce mentally ill in jails, emergency rooms

By Michael Wetzel 

For the Enquirer 

Local leaders of a program that tries to reduce the number of mentally ill people reentering jail or using hospital emergency rooms to receive psychiatric treatment say it’s working and worth saving.  

Kathy Goodwin, a case manager for the Stepping Up Initiative, said she has had more than 150 referrals from the Morgan County Jail and Decatur Morgan Hospital emergency room since January 2019. 

“Our recidivism rate is 6 percent for those who have entered the Stepping Up program,” Goodwin said. “That’s 94 percent of people in the program have stayed out of jail. This is a very data-driven program. That is an amazing number.” 

In an effort to keep the Stepping Up Initiative alive in north Alabama, a fundraiser with dinner and entertainment will be held Friday night at Ingalls Harbor Pavilion with a goal of raising $80,000. The local Stepping Up Initiative, which is part of a national program, has operated with $50,000 in grants received since October of 2018 by the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama. 

“This program is so important for clients who have nothing,” said Lisa Coleman, executive director of the Mental Health Center. “Many are going into the jail. Most of the charges are misdemeanors. They have no clothing, no shelter, no support. They keep going back to jail and the ERs.” 

Coleman estimated Stepping Up has saved over $600,000 of local taxpayers’ money by reducing the number of jail inmates and emergency room patients the past couple of years. 

Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett said 46 percent of the Morgan inmates “have been identified with having mental health issues.” 

“We have to do a better job in our society taking care of people with mental health issues,” he said. “We have to let these people know if they want help, Stepping Up is there to help them. Without the program, they go home where loved ones can’t take care of them. … Many want to self-medicate. The illegal drugs make them feel better and it’s a way for them to escape life as they know it.” 

Laura Burdeshaw with Decatur Morgan Hospital said one in eight ER cases are related to mental health or substance abuse. 

“There is a lack of providers, lack of insurance, lack of financial resources for these people,” she said. “Unfortunately, the jail and ERs have become the primary care provider for mental health issues.” 

She said Decatur Morgan Hospital has built a psychiatric unit, which allows patients to feel “safe, more comfortable in the environment they are in while we are assessing them.” 

Burdeshaw said because of Stepping Up, she is seeing “over 42 percent” of ER patients needing mental health treatment receiving it and that has reduced hospital admissions. 

State Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, blames elected state officials for ignoring proper funding of mental health for more than a decade. 

“Mental health is something we’ve dropped the ball on since the recession in 2008,” he said. “We have to make up for a neglected decade. It has placed strain on our sheriffs, our hospitals, our teachers.” 

He said he has been appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to a new committee to address mental health. 

“This will be a good year for mental health,” he said. “The Stepping Up program in Morgan County is a frontrunner. People, other counties are coming to Morgan County for advice. I plan to challenge all 67 counties to show them that, and hopefully we can do this statewide. 

Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said 15 counties and 11 community mental health centers are facilitating the Stepping Up program with success. 

She said the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama and Wellstone Behavior Health of Madison and Cullman counties run two of the strongest programs. 

Stadthagen said state House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and Minority Leader Anthony Daniel, D-Huntsville, will be speaking at the fundraiser at the Ingalls Harbor Pavilion tonight at 6:30 p.m. 

Page Holifield, president-elect of the Junior League of Alabama said J.W. Steakhouse in Priceville will cater the food, and musical entertainment will be provided by Trick Zipper. She said dress is cocktail. 

Tickets are $100 each. For more information, visit mhcnca.org.