CULLMAN - In our continuing series on suicide and mental health, the Tribune sat down with Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry to get his perspective.
Sheriff Gentry began by noting the differences between true mental illness and temporary conditions brought on by substance abuse. The outcome for law enforcement, though, is pretty much the same in any case, he says.
Gentry explained, "The problem that we run into in law enforcement is that we respond to those calls to try and help the families, but the thing we're getting blocked at the most is there's nowhere to get people help. They cut all the funding to mental health, the state government did, and so there's nowhere to get people long-term treatment for their mental illness. So, in turn, you see them at home, not getting treatment, and they commit suicide.
"It's something that we face in law enforcement: it's calls that we see every day. Our main goal is to get people help, but there's not as many resources as there once was, because of the funding cuts. Until you get those avenues to get people help, then it's something we'll face.
"The main thing is, there's just nowhere to get people long-term treatment. There's avenues for short-term treatment, but not for long-term treatment. And if people have mental illness, they need long-term treatment. There's no money, resources or facilities to do that."
When deputies pick up someone who is mentally ill, what happens?
"There's a couple of ways that you do it," said Gentry. "There are petitions that we have to sign, a commitment order, and we'll take them to the hospital. At that point, they'll start trying to find a facility. Those are commitment orders by law enforcement: if we come upon someone who's going to commit suicide, harm themselves or harm others, we will petition to the probate court to get a commitment order to get them treated.
"The probate court does commitment. The probate judge has a lot of responsibilities, and we have a good working relationship with our probate judge here, Judge (Tammy) Brown. She's always pro-law enforcement, she's always there to help us. They have avenues, because they do the commitment orders for mental health evaluations; but they also have more resources for families than average law enforcement does.
"Again, often you don't have a facility; so, what we see is a lot of outpatient treatment. If you don't have a facility to send them to, it's a short-term solution for a long-term problem. And that's not positive."
Mental illness in jail
How many inmates would be better served at a mental health facility?
Gentry replied, "It's hard to say. We have about 330 inmates. There are some that would be better suited for a facility than jail, but where we're at right now in society, you have to protect society. Until we have those solutions, the only thing we can do is keep them here.
"We do have a medical side to our facility in there; we have nurses and doctors, and so we try to do the best we can with people who have true mental illness. There again, you have to remember that you have so much drug-induced mental illness, too."
Do you have psychologists or trained counselors?
"We're not set up to do that, because we're a jail. We have a contract with CRMC. Any of that would come through them. There are times that we utilize Cullman Mental Health.
"Most resources we bring in are on the faith side of things. We have a lot of groups that come in, that provide faith-based counseling to our inmates. For a lot of them, it's very important to get that to them."
When a cop has to be a cop
Gentry shared about those moments when law enforcement officers are no longer able to consider a person's mental state:
"When you're dealing with people that are in mental rages, that are committing violent acts; we know it's mental illness, but they may be armed and shooting at people or us, carrying a knife or whatever. We have to do what's in the best interests of society. That's why we're there: to serve people and protect society. You don't want to have to hurt anybody, but there's instances where we're forced to make those decisions.
"What people don't realize is not only what it does to the family that's dealing with mental illness, but what it does to law enforcement. We have deputies that go out and see horrific things every day: suicides, violent acts because of mental illness; and that takes a toll on the deputies. It's a bad thing."
Do you make resources available to your deputies?
"We do," replied Gentry. "We have not only our sheriff's chaplains, but also Capt. Ed Potter, our victims’ services deputy. He is certified, and he is part of a team here in Alabama that will go around and counsel with law enforcement officers that are involved in traumatic incidents. He does everything from helping victims of domestic violence and victims of crimes, to the families, to helping our deputies here, coordinating things they need."
Advice to those in danger of a mental health crisis
"Reach out," said Gentry, "look for somebody you can talk to; whether it's somebody through mental health, the probate office, or a family member, or through church. The biggest thing that we see is the venting process: people don't have a way to release what's going on inside, to talk it out, to work through those problems to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I tell people every day, you can't deal with it through drugs, you can't deal with it through alcohol; those only escalate the problems that you're facing."
Look for the last article in our series, an interview with Chris Van Dyke, executive director of the Cullman Mental Health Authority/Mental Healthcare of Cullman, this weekend.
CCBOE staffers talk about mental health resources: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/16/ccboe-staffers-talk-abou...
Interview with Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/09/cullman-city-police-chie...
Remembering Nate: Interview with local suicide victim’s parents: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/09/remembering-nate-parents...
Cullman sees frightening increase in numbers of suicides: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/02/cullman-co-sees-frighten...
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