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My turn: Mental illness is treatable, and treatment works

Posted: June 7, 2012 - 12:06am

Although the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been in Juneau for more than 25 years, this past year has been one of growth and greater awareness.

For example, earlier this year NAMI Juneau was able to bring author and mental health advocate Pete Earley to town to help raise awareness of mental illness — and more importantly, the criminalization of it. Thanks to the generosity of numerous agencies and businesses, many Juneauites had the opportunity to hear him speak — mental health professionals, members of the bar and others in the criminal justice system, and the public at UAS and on the radio. His message was simple: our prisons have become our nation’s mental health asylums; treatment, rather than imprisonment saves the state money; and mental illnesses impact all of us.

NAMI Juneau’s mission is to educate, support and advocate on behalf of those with mental illnesses. We teach that mental illness is a brain disorder — “no fault,” similar to many other diseases. It strikes people from all walks of life, races and religions; and while it’s still unclear why mental illnesses occur, we know a person’s genetics and his or her environment are contributing factors. Symptons of mental illness can be treated and impacted individuals can have successful lives; conversely, however, when the symptoms of brain disorders go untreated there can be devastating consequences. In the overwhelming majority of cases, dangerous or violent acts committed by those with brain disorders are the result of neglect, or inappropriate or inadequate treatment.

In short, people who commit offenses due to state of mind or a brain disorder require treatment, not punishment; prisons and jails are not optimal therapeutic settings. NAMI believes mental health systems have an obligation to develop and implement care for individuals whose untreated illnesses may cause them to engage in these inappropriate or criminal behaviors.

During the week Earley was here, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti presented strategies for “smart justice” to the Legislature. He spoke about The Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force’s development of a five-year prisoner reentry strategic plan (2011 – 2016) that could help reduce recidivism in Alaska. According to Carpeneti, in order to reduce recidivism and keep communities safe, we need to address underlying problems and support the state’s efforts to increase and expand substance abuse and mental health treatment in prisons and improve access to housing and jobs.

Alaska must maintain and strengthen programs such as the Individual Reentry Plan, which helps individuals with serious brain disorders who have served sentences and are eligible for release on parole. The IRP, which is developed prior to release, addresses basic needs such as employment, housing, family reintegration support, positive social support and finances, to name a few.

One of Juneau’s successes is the establishment of the Juneau Mental Health Court, a diversion program that reinforces the principle of rehabilitation. Non-violent offenders with serious mental illnesses are identified, placed in treatment programs and, upon successful completion, may have their charges dismissed by the judge.

The Chief Justice also spoke about strategies developed by the Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force. One of the basic and obvious findings of their report is that incarceration is expensive, costing the state $49,800 per person each year — that’s $136 per person each day. Money could be saved if the state expanded mental health and substance abuse services.

In addition to developing new programs and strengthening existing ones, talking about mental illness is what’s most important. One in four people has a mental illness — meaning, if an individual doesn’t have a mental illness, it’s likely he or she knows someone who does.

NAMI Juneau’s new year will soon begin. In early fall, we’ll celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 7-12 ) to draw attention to our efforts — as well as NAMI statewide and nationally. In the meantime:

• Educate yourself about mental illnesses.

• If someone you know receives a diagnosis, talk, listen and then encourage him or her to get treatment.

Most important, contact NAMI Juneau at namijuneau@gmail.com or 463-4251 for more information or to learn more about our support groups and other agencies in Juneau that can be of assistance. Mental Illnesses are treatable — treatment works and recovery happens.

• Chapman is the executive director of NAMI Juneau.

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