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Commissioners hear mental health concerns

Posted: Thursday, Jun 5th, 2014

DEL NORTE – Representatives from the Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Department, Department of Social Services and the San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group (SLVBHG) were present for the Rio Grande County Commissioners’ meeting last Wednesday, May 28 to discuss concerns regarding mental health in the Valley.

A proclamation for the month of May to be named as Mental Health Month was tabled a couple of weeks ago so that various representatives of the SLVBHG could attend this meeting.

Stating that “mental health issues were very important in the Valley,” Chief Operating Officer Kristina Daniel of SLVBHG asked the commissioners to consider proclaiming May as Mental Health Month as it has been in previous years all across the country. There was a motion approved to do so.

Commissioner Karla Shriver said a recent incident at Rio Grande County Jail had heightened awareness about the need for better communication between departments.

“We have had some discussion before about how we can improve communication between departments and improve relationships regarding mental health issues,” said Shriver. “On May 14, we had an issue with an individual that had been housed in the jail which heightened the awareness for us commissioners about these relationships.”

Shriver said the commissioners wanted an open conversation so they could hear all sides of the story, everyone’s position on the challenges facing them and their individual ideas on how to improve. Shriver then invited all the departments present to offer their ideas on creating better communication between them.

The issue of referrals getting misplaced was raised and addressed. There is a new system in place to make sure everything goes to one person and into the proper file. All referrals are to be emailed to one address. The goal is to have a response to the referral within seven days.

In cases of mental health holds, therapists and law enforcement officers expressed they felt their hands were tied due to the possibility of infringing on a person’s individual rights when there was no apparent “imminent danger” to the public or the individual.

There are also different regulations to follow if a person is under the influence (of drugs/alcohol). In that case, the individual must be held until the following morning before a mental health worker may come and do a person-to-person evaluation after the individual has sobered up.

The definition of “imminent” can be interpreted as anything from 24 hours to two weeks’ time. This creates a big gray area for a mental health care worker and law enforcement.

Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton said he felt that “He was up against a wall” when someone was in obvious mental stress but no charges could be filed against them.

Since there is no designated facility for mental patients in the Valley, the only option is to take the patient to the hospital under guard or to the jail. Both of those options pose legal and safety issues for law enforcement and medical team members.

“There is no other option, but to relocate them out of the Valley or to press legal charges,” said Norton. “Even if I feel they are mentally ill, I cannot legally restrain them. We just had a person that we had to take to Pueblo, because he was eating the remote control device and tearing up the cell.”

Norton said when a person is a danger to themselves he has the responsibility to protect them, as well as any other person involved.

“If he is eating the remote and I cannot restrain him, all I can do is tell him to stop,” said Norton.

There is a catch-22 in cases like these because the behavior health department may declare a patient in need of a 72-hour hold, but then the person must be released unless charges can be made against them.

“You have to have mental culpability,” said Norton. “They wanted me to charge him, but if there is no mental culpability I cannot.”

Norton was able to obtain a court order to take the man to the Pueblo State Hospital in this case. In prior cases with the same individual, 12 hospitals had refused to admit this person, because of his condition.

“How can hospitals that are the only ones that can take care of people like this refuse to give aid and then tell the sheriff that we have to house them, but cannot do this and this and this,” said Norton. “My concern was where we had him housed to begin with because of his combative nature, which was an isolated cell, and if we keep him there for 72 hours we would be in violation of the law.”

There are major concerns about mentally ill patients all over the state and the entire country.

Please see the related story by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News on Page 10A.

For the complete article see the 06-05-2014 issue.

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