Most people understand the basic rule of law: Get caught using illegal substances and go to jail.

What many may not know is that drug use often stems from a much deeper problem: mental illness.

Many people resort to “self-medication,” or the illegal use of drugs, to escape depression or other problems that make them feel abnormal. When the abuse becomes addiction, some of those same people find themselves on the wrong end of the law and end up in the state’s jails and prisons.

According to a recent report by the Associated Press, more than half of the country’s prison and jail inmates report mental health problems. The study was conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found mentally dysfunctional prisoners were more likely to have been in jail before, had a propensity to get in fights while incarcerated, and often had drug problems.

In Cherokee County, mental health professionals and those involved in the criminal justice system recognize a need for services for such individuals in lieu of incarceration, and worked to provide a solution. The result came in May, when those involved started Cherokee County Mental Health Court.

The mission of mental health court is to implement therapeutic jurisprudence to decrease frequency and duration of incarcerations and increase treatment of seriously mentally ill people in Cherokee County.

Nisha Wilson, a counselor for Bill Willis Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, coordinated the treatment side of the program. Wilson has been with BWCMHSAS for two years, but recently took on the position with the mental health court.

“I was brought in in May of this year to get the treatment side of the program rolling,” said Wilson. “We then started taking on participants who qualified through a diverse referral process.”

According to Wilson, referrals for someone facing drug charges who has demonstrated a possible mental illness come from myriad sources – including the local police, sheriff, judges, district attorney, treatment providers, social services and family members.

Margaret Davidson, executive director for BWCMHSAS, elaborated on the process.

“Although Nisha was hired by us, we work in close cooperation with area agencies, law enforcement and [Associate District] Judge [Mark] Dobbins,” said Davidson.

The program is need-based, more than a decision based on charges filed against the client.

“It’s a problem-solving court for folks who have both mental health and criminal justice problems,” said Wilson. “The decision to accept a client is a team effort, and our goal is to keep people out of jail and to continue with mental health care instead of resorting back to previous drug use.”

The 12-month program is tailored to individual needs, but has a basic structure – including the use of sanctions and rewards, random drug testing, counseling and the creation of a treatment plan.

“The client is responsible for participating in making a treatment plan for the program,” said Davidson. “She then reports to the court every other week to report the patient’s progress, or lack thereof.”

According to Wilson, most referrals come from the District Attorney’s Office after a family member requests help for a loved one.

“If someone is picked up on drug charges and is in jail, or comes before a judge, and an official or family member feels there may be a mental health issue, they call Nisha,” said Davidson. “She conducts an evaluation of the client, and if they qualify, she proposes services contingent on court approval.”

Participation is voluntary, not court-mandated. If the client accepts the terms of services, Wilson then meets with the district attorney and the defense attorney.

“Everyone talks, and we decide whether or not to defer sentencing and accept the person into the program, or to continue on the criminal justice route,” said Wilson.

Since the program is in its infancy, Wilson has no measurable statistics on the program’s success rate. Wilson currently has six participants.

Davidson said clients are also eligible for services from other entities, in addition to services available at her site.

“We have access to other services, and we can find other treatment providers who meet special needs,” she said.

Both agreed the program has been well-received by referral sources, and was modeled after Cherokee County’s Drug Court program.

“I think this [program] will benefit many individuals as well as the community at large,” said Davidson. “It’s also a pleasure working with Judge Dobbins and the district attorney. We’re all on the same page and want the same thing. Anything we can do to divert folks from drug abuse and incarceration is a good thing.”

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