Thurston County Mental Health Court celebrates 10 years

BY RHIANNON BERG

A two-year post-plea program that keeps people with mental illness out of jail and in therapy celebrated 10 years of success on Thursday.

Thurston County Mental Health court participants receive mental health treatment, submit to random drug testing and maintain frequent contact with court staff. After successfully completing the program, they may be convicted of lesser charges or have their cases dismissed.

More than half of all prison and jail inmates in the United States have mental health problems, according to a study published by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2006.

“We work towards the goals of improving their lives, not punishing them,” said David Nixon, a therapist at Behavioral Health Resources in Olympia.

The program has received 1,483 referrals since it began, but only 206 people have been accepted into the program. Of those accepted, 109 of program those participants have successfully completed the program, a little more than half.

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“Treatment courts are the best use of resources,” said Marilyn Roberts, president of the Thurston and Mason county chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “They create an environment for people to feel safe. They’re treated by educated people who understand mental illness.”

In contrast to traditional court proceedings, mental health court clients and attorneys use their first names, and the judge asks defendants directly about their jobs and hobbies.

In court Thursday, Thurston County District Court Judge Brett Buckley asked defendants about upcoming camping trips, playing football and finding tasty chicken strips.

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The program is not lenient, though. Police handcuffed a man after Buckley sentenced him to a day in jail for failing to appear for a drug test earlier in the week. He will remain in the program for now, but he could be terminated and sent into the criminal court system if he misses another test.

Buckley said the program is intended for those who are committed to making positive changes in their lives.

“This is about being here to address your mental health and make personal progress,” he said. “Otherwise it’s meaningless.”

The program began in 2005 when multiple parties, including a judge and a county commissioner, wanted a new approach to helping people with mental health issues who repeatedly were arrested and charged.

It is funded by the treatment sales tax, which was implemented in 2008 and funds mental health and substance abuse treatment programs throughout the county.

“We need programs like this,” said Ann Varpness, a former local NAMI board member. “They keep people with mental health issues out of hospitals and the streets.”

Many of the program participants don’t have private health insurance or access to mental health resources outside of the program.

“These programs are well worth the funds and resources spent on them,” said Staci Coleman, the court coordinator for Thurston County Mental Health Court. “They provide opportunities to people who want them, but otherwise wouldn’t have them.”

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