The Mental Health Minute

Articles and news about mental health issues

Travis County looking to set up court for veterans

As a psychiatric nurse residing in Austin, I found this article to be of special interest.  However, as good as it is, there is so much more that needs to be done.    Mental health courts are proving to be useful and productive in numerous states across our nation.

The way our veterans are treated is not acceptable.  These are men and women who put our safety and our way of life above all else and deserve to be respected by receiving care when they need it.

I can also tell you that the problem will not be going away any time soon.  The culture in our military does not make it easy for the soldiers who are having troubles to get any help.

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Officials say too many former military members are in jail because of mental health issues.

By Jeremy Schwartz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In hopes of helping veterans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, Travis County authorities are looking at creating a special veterans court docket, which would channel those charged with certain crimes into treatment and social services rather than incarceration.

A handful of such courts have been created across the country since 2008, as officials respond to growing numbers of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As many as 30 percent are thought to suffer from illnesses ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to major depression. Too many, officials say, turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, often leading to entanglements with the criminal justice system.

Last month, Harris County set up a veterans court pilot project, and Tarrant County last week decided to accept a $200,000 grant from Gov. Rick Perry’s office to hire staffers to manage a veterans court there. The Texas Legislature passed a law this year allowing counties to create veterans courts.

Travis County officials say not enough is being done locally to identify veterans in need of mental health treatment.

“Obtaining a criminal conviction or serving jail time … will not resolve the problems underlying the offense,” said Travis County Constable Maria Canchola. “Intervention for our veterans is essential.”

The possible creation of a local veterans court was hailed by veterans groups as a vital step. “Treatment is far more effective and far less expensive,” said Paul Sullivan, head of the Austin-based group Veterans for Common Sense.

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said a team of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges will need to work out several details before a veterans court becomes reality, including determining which offenses would be eligible and what services would be offered. Officials will also need to identify funding for the court.

“But there’s a great deal of momentum to move forward with this,” Escamilla said, adding that the court would probably begin handling misdemeanor cases but could take on felony cases.

He said the court would be modeled on the county’s mental health court, which handles offenders suffering from mental health problems in hopes of preventing repeat offenses.

The nation’s first veterans court began in January 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., where veterans are typically ordered to undergo counseling, find work and stop using drugs or alcohol instead of being sentenced to jail or prison time.

The court isn’t the only program local officials hope will reach veterans. This month, Travis County embarked on a six-month pilot program that requires veteran offenders to get evaluated and treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of their pretrial release from jail.

The efforts stem from a two-year Travis County program called the Veterans Intervention Project, which on Monday released the results of a 90-day study of veterans booked into the Travis County Jail.

The study, which relied on self-reporting through questionnaires, found that about 150 veterans were booked into the Travis County Jail each month, or 3.4 percent of total bookings. Of those, 18 percent served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 13 percent in Vietnam and 54 percent in noncombat zones. Most charges — 73 percent — were for misdemeanor crimes, with driving while intoxicated, assault and drug possession the most frequent charges. Of the felony charges, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and delivery of a controlled substance were the top ones. About one-third of the veterans were arrested two or more times during the 90-day study, highlighting the need for early intervention, officials said.

The jail study found that few locked-up veterans were accessing help through the VA, which offers services for mental health issues and substance abuse. While 86 percent of the arrested veterans were eligible for such services, just 35 percent had received them. Officials said the reasons the veterans did not seek help include the stigma within the military attached to seeking mental health help and other-than-honorable discharges, in which veterans are not allowed access to VA services.

Some veterans advocates point to a vicious cycle in which active-duty service members suffering from post-traumatic stress and other maladies turn to drugs to self-medicate, which can lead to a dishonorable discharge and inability to access needed mental health help.

Maj. Darren Long, who represents the Travis County sheriff’s office on the veterans task force, said there needs to be more understanding of the issues facing veterans, especially those fresh from combat tours. “We come across them when they are in a mental health crisis,” he said. “We owe it to them. They take care of us and our freedoms. Now it’s our turn to take care of them when they come back home.”

jschwartz@statesman.com; 912-2942

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December 20, 2009 - Posted by | Mental Health | , , , , , , ,

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