As outlined in the Moultrie Observer’s August 12, 2020 editorial, “Mental Health Challenge Resonates Locally,” no doubt our community has seen tragic consequences of untreated mental illness. Only 4% of cases involving violence in the US are tied to mental illness, but the loss of even one life is significant and warrants thoughtful attention to change. That change must extend beyond simply assuming that law enforcement needs to do a better job. Law enforcement is only one part of our community. That change must occur in every segment of the community, and there is good news.
Fortunately Colquitt County is ahead of many other counties in spreading awareness that mental illness and substance abuse disorder are diseases of the brain. Our effort to make a difference started almost a decade ago with a community stakeholder meeting in October 2011. From that first meeting, pieces began to fall into place as citizens worked to build a recovery-oriented community.
Stepping up first to initiate change, the Moultrie Police Department hosted its first Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training in March 2012 at the request of former MPD Chief Frank Lang. CIT is nationally recognized as the gold standard for de-escalation training. CIT is now required by MPD Chief Sean Ladson for his personnel. CIT officers are making a difference.
June 2012 marked the first meeting of what was to become NAMI Moultrie. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest grassroots organization dedicated to building better lives for those affected by mental illness through education, support, and advocacy. NAMI Moultrie became an official affiliate in September 2013. Local members are trained to lead NAMI educational courses, which are offered at no cost to participants. NAMI presenters work hand in hand with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC) during CIT trainings. Moultrie’s monthly educational meetings and support groups are on temporary hold until the threat of COVID-19 diminishes.
Our Colquitt County Georgia Pines Clinic closed in 2009, requiring local clients to travel out of county to receive treatment for mental illness or developmental disabilities. Individuals without transportation suffered painful negative consequences. Local efforts prevailed and the clinic was reopened in October 2012 and now serves clients five days a week.
When former Governor Deal announced start up grants for diversion courts, Superior Court Judge Frank Horkan volunteered to write the grant and put a team together. Court started January 18, 2013, with the purpose of working closely with individuals who are in the legal system because they have substance abuse addiction, mental illness, or both. Following Horkan’s retirement, Superior Court Judge Brian McDaniel filled the position, continuing to successfully guide individuals back to productive citizenship through treatment in lieu of jail.
In April 2015 almost 400 people attended Transforming 2 Wellness, an awareness event focused on recovery from mental health challenges and substance use. The event, a first for Southwest Georgia and the largest in the state, was held at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center. Forty-five exhibitors highlighted resources available throughout the region and presenters gave attendees hope for recovery through personal stories and open discussions.
The Peer Support Wellness and Respite Center of Colquitt County opened in September 2014 with significant help from Ben and Jenny Marion. The center is a project of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network and is funded through a contract with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). It is a peer-run complement to traditional mental health services, staffed 24/7 by Certified Peer Specialists, offering a warm line, daily wellness activities, and respite care.
In response to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) initiative, Colquitt County was the first county to organize a county wide health summit. Over one hundred local citizens attended the Partnering for a Healthy Community event held in March 2019. The forum gave local residents an opportunity to hear from 23 local organizations showcasing the resources they offer that contribute to the overall wellbeing of Colquitt County’s citizens. This event helped bridge the gap between the needs of Moultrie/Colquitt County residents and resources designed to meet those needs, creating an opportunity to open the lines of communication among resource organizations, as well as between the organizations and the constituents they serve.
To further bridge the gap between residents and resources, forum attendees participated in Identifying Independence and Recovery Needs in Georgia, a statewide survey conducted by the Regional Advisory Councils of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The survey informed respondents about statewide services and asked them about local needs for people with mental illnesses, addictive diseases, and developmental disabilities. Colquitt County submitted more surveys than any other county in the state. Survey results helped identify gaps in services that can guide future improvements. County, regional, and statewide results were sent to Colquitt County commissioners and Moultrie City Council members so local leaders can use the data as a planning guide to improve the overall health of our community.
Plans are coming to fruition for more psychiatric medical resources thanks to Judy Payne, CEO of Turning Point Hospital, and Jim Matney, CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center. Their $750,000 grant was approved to create a residency in psychiatry in Colquitt County. The first psychiatrist is now receiving patients.
This is only part of our recovery story, but hopefully enough good news to show that Moultrie and Colquitt County have been working to improve the quality of life for all our citizens. Is there more to do? Absolutely. Recovery-friendly employers are almost impossible to find. Affordable housing is hard to find. Stigma is keeping families from seeking help. Lack of knowledge fosters fear. Pandemic stress is affecting everyone. Negative news focuses on our differences rather than what we have in common.
Mental illness and substance abuse disorder are equal opportunity diseases. They do not differentiate according to gender, ethnicity, economic status, age, or any other criteria. Five in five are affected.
Some readers may be amazed to learn of these improvements that started almost a decade ago. If so, it begs the question, “Why?” Consider going back to the original editorial concerning tragic outcomes involving law enforcement that started this conversation. Law enforcement stepped up to start the change process in 2012 with CIT training. However, first responders are only one part of our community. Their work is connected to the needs that arise in the community. To think that they can solve mental health challenges alone is irrational.
If the solution is change, it must include the entire community. The question then becomes, “How can I be a part of the solution?”
Lynn Wilson is president of NAMI Moultrie.