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Georgia bill aims to provide additional help for those with mental health problems

Woman having mental health crisis. ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images.
Woman having mental health crisis. ArtistGNDphotography via Getty Images.
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A Georgia bill is moving forward in legislature that's aimed at doing more to recruit mental health care workers, and finding ways to help people who bounce between hospitals, jails, and homelessness.

"These are the individuals that literally go through what I call the three-legged stool, homelessness, healthcare. And then I'll just say incarceration," says Rep. Todd Jones.

Statistically, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.

In Georgia alone over 1.4 million people have a mental health condition.

Rep. Todd Jones is the sponsor of House Bill 520 and says the push for more mental health resources hits close to home.

His son was homeless and diagnosed almost a decade ago with a mental illness.

"He was in psychosis for six years, Schizoaffective with Bipolar depression. And we know that he has been through the cycle at least 30 times, if not more," says Rep. Jones.

Jones says even with private insurance, the journey to find care took his family across four state lines to get him the help he needs.

To have a son look you in the eye, and I'll say deadpan in the eye give you the 1000-yard stare as he's homeless, looking like completely disheveled, long hair, long nails, etc. And literally saying to you, I don't want help from you, I just want you to buy me a sandwich. At that point, you fall to your lowest, says Jones.

The bill stems from a mental health care push spearheaded last year by the late Republican House Speaker David Ralston.

The bill would try to add more workers by forgiving student loans for nurses and others already in the health care field, on top of the loan forgiveness granted to current students in last year's law. It would also try to make it easier to apply for and renew occupational licenses, recruit workers from other states and countries, and ease training requirements for workers licensed in other states.

Kim Jones is the executive director of NAMI, a mental health advocacy group in Georgia.

We are one of the states that has much harder process in our experience that we require, how we require it, than our local surrounding states like Tennessee, says Jones.

She says a lack of healthcare facilities in the state affect those who need care the most.

"We are known for sending our people with mental health conditions to jail, they don't have the care that they need in their communities. So they often have interactions with the police," says Jones.

NAMI statistics show 1 in 4 people with a serious mental illness have been arrested and about 2 out of 5 adults in jail or prison have a mental illness (that number is 7 in 10 for youth).

And when those interactions happen, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk says bed space is a problem.

"One thing we don't have in this area is bed space," says Sisk. "We have to either go to Rome, or people voluntarily go across state lines. We can’t involuntarily take them across state lines to Chattanooga to say Valley or Parkridge or Erlanger to get mental health services."

And if there are no available beds?

"They go into a wait. So sometimes they get tied up in the emergency room," says Sisk.

This is another problem the bill is looking at: requiring a series of studies, including one that would look at beds available for inpatient mental health care in the state.

""If you do commit a crime in the state of Georgia, you absolutely should pay your time," says Rep. Jones. "But at the same time when there's a 911 call, and there's an opportunity to be able to address the pressing issue of mental health and or substance abuse, we want to be able to do that."

The measure would also try to make it easier for officials to use a form of court-ordered outpatient treatment created last year.

It would create new crisis stabilization units in Columbus, Dublin and the Atlanta area, and mandate more data sharing among agencies to assist with studying problems and planning for services.

Last year’s measure pushed private insurers to abide by long-existing federal requirements to provide the same level of benefits for mental health disorders as they do for physical illness.

Funding for the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities was increased by $180 million this year.

Sponsors have said they expect more spending in the budget that begins July 1, particularly aimed at how much Medicaid pays for care.

That, in turn, could allow Medicaid providers to raise wages for workers.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities would be required to provide county coordinators to cut the number of people who end up in jails during a mental health crisis.

That mental health agency would also have to develop best practices to aid people who frequently cycle between jail, health providers and homelessness.

Behavioral health screening programs would be provided to jails, and efforts would be made to connect people leaving jails to community mental health programs.

“Many people in our correctional system are not inherently wrongdoers, they’re simply ill," said Rep. Gregg Kennard, a Lawrenceville Democrat.

Meanwhile, the state would make sure that such people could qualify for housing despite a criminal record, and seek to increase supportive housing available to such patients.

Representatives voted 163-3 last Thursday to pass House Bill 520, sending it to the Senate for more debate.

Read more about the bill here:

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