N.C. sheriff's office using grant funding to provide mental health counselor to inmates

"Things like substance abuse is not their enemy, it's mental health," said Col. Chris Thomas

By Trevor Dunnell
The Daily News
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Onslow County continues proactively addressing mental health, so much so that it was recently given an Excellence in Innovation Award for a program working to help defuse crisis situations.

The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners presented the award for Onslow's work in deploying the HealthIM program and protocols into law enforcement patrol cars, allowing officers a quick look into de-escalating a situation involving a person suffering from mental health issues.

A prime example that may coincide with another program recently launched — this time in the Onslow County Jail.

Mental Health Counselor

The goal is to integrate the mental health provider, patient and family to make informed decisions regarding care and treatment.

The Onslow County Sheriff's Office has partnered with Integrated Family Services to do just that.

After being awarded a grant for $741,512, the sheriff's office is able to use the funds for a mental health counselor from IFS to come into the jail and offer services directly to inmates.

Those services include treatment and further counseling options once the person is released from jail, with the goal being to set the person up for future success with staying clean and productive.

"We have folks who are just in and out constantly and we know they have mental health issues," said Col. Chris Thomas. "We as LEO are not equipped to handle most situations so the counselor can come in and provide resources for them."

How it started, how it's going

The grant is for three years and the counseling was supposed to start in early 2020.

A year and a half worth of pandemic restrictions later and the program has started to get its foothold where people need it the most. However, with growing delta variant concerns, Thomas explained the counselor has been unable to meet with inmates properly.

Once fully operational, the sheriff's office will provide the counselor access and space to work inside the sheriff's office. After interviewing arrestees as they come in, the counselor identifies who are repeat offenders for low-level crimes.

It's not only about drug addiction, though Thomas used that as a possible scenario.

"People addicted to drugs usually commit all kinds of crimes and mostly they are minor crimes trying to feed their own addiction by stealing, trespassing or getting into altercations," Thomas said.

After identifying who would best fit the program, the counselor begins working with them inside the facility, setting up treatment and other resources ready for them once they are released. The counselor then follows up to ensure they are in contact with treatment options.

Thomas added 12 current inmates have been identified to take part in the program and any inmate not identified can request counseling.

Ultimately, the program is to help break a pattern causing citizens to fall back into bad habits.

"When individuals get out, they often go back to the same things they did before and end up in the same circles," said Thomas. "This is here to try to have something waiting for them on the outside to help with the issues they are going through."

Onslow sees more crisis calls by far

IFS 2019 Annual Report provides statistics from the 26 Eastern North Carolina counties they serve.

Onslow sits at the top when it comes to mobile crisis referrals at 1,064, far exceeding Pitt County with 743 and New Hanover with 555 referrals.

The county is also second behind Pitt (223) for IFS's Call Center Cals. IFS reported 118 calls from Onslow residents.

The discussions deriving from those calls are broken down into categories. Anxiety or depression calls came in at a 38% rate, while relationship issues and "other" were 15%. Family issue calls were reported at 11% and addiction was low on the list at 2%.

There are other reasons residents called but all branched off of mental health.

From Aug. 1, 2016, through July 31, 2017, IFS mobile crisis management provided crisis intervention to 466 consumers in Onslow. Of those, 24% were referred from law enforcement.

With over double the increase of mobile crisis calls and a majority of the referrals coming from officers and deputies, the need to meet mental health from behind bars is evident.

"Things like substance abuse is not their enemy, it's mental health," Thomas added.
(c)2021 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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