by R.D. Fish

In this week’s not-very-new news is a story that happened in late April, touching an even-less-new issue: mental health.
A Stover man faces criminal charges for making threats and exposing himself in public.
If I’m not too far off in my reading of the Mike Shields case, his actions, in my experienced opinion, may be at least partly a result of mental illness.
That’s the part of the story that I care about.
I care about it because I have, or had, several loved ones who struggled with mental illness.
I care because, for about a year during the previous decade, I devoted myself body and soul to serving the mentally ill.
I care as a friend of at least two people who ended their own lives – the ultimate symptom of a deadly type of illness that calls on us, separately and as a society, to be compassionate rather than judgmental.
I’m not saying Shields shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. What I am saying is that he shouldn’t be punished for being mentally ill.
My experience as an adult SMI (seriously mentally ill) case manager gave me a close-up look at an agony that afflicts good people and bad people alike, robbing them of control over their thoughts or feelings.
Too often, when someone’s meds weren’t working, or when they stop taking them due to the side effects, or when things are complicated by their tendency to self-medicate by substance abuse, these people, good and bad, get in trouble for acting out in inappropriate ways.
As a result, I often saw a more or less good person punished for symptoms of an illness that could be effectively treated.
But it wasn’t best treated while they were in jail. Their behavioral problems got worse, which led to more serious charges, which led to longer stays in jail, which separated them even longer from effective behavioral health care – a vicious cycle.
The best outcome, I think, would be that the legal system use this opportunity to connect Mike Shields with medical care, supervised by the court to ensure it at least starts to help.
The court can plan involuntary evaluation and treatment for periods of, say, six months. It can appoint state-funded caregivers to monitor that treatment.
These restrictions on his freedom are not insignificant. But they could turn his life around, if not save it. That would be better than dangling indefinitely in the criminal-justice/mentalhealth circle of hell.
Perhaps you know someone whom, at times, you consider a danger to herself and/or to others, or simply too impaired to take care of herself. You’ve tried to get her into some kind of treatment, but other than being checked out at an emergency room when she is acutely ill, or getting a week’s worth of pills to level her off, she seems stuck in a slow, downward spiral.
What can you do? You can, to start, become acquainted with Missouri’s rules for Civil Involuntary Detention, during which a person can be evaluated and treated for mental illness, whether voluntarily or not. Information about this is available at dmh.mo.gov/mentalillness/helpinfo/civil.html.
Our state’s Department of Mental Health also has links to a variety of crisis resources at dmh.mo.gov/crisis.html.
Among them is a system called Access Crisis Intervention (ACI), about which you can learn at dmh.mo.gov/mentalillness/progs/aci.html.
Every county in Missouri is hooked up to an ACI provider. In the case of Morgan, Pettis, Cooper, and Moniteau counties, that’s Burrell Behavioral Health Central Region. Their ACI hotline is 800-395-2132. In Miller, Camden, or Benton county, call the Compass Health ACI hotline at 800-833-3915.
Help is a phone call away, 24 hours a day.
ACI won’t send men with butterfly nets to take your loved one away, perhaps forever. The law now recognizes mentally ill people have rights, including the right to legal counsel. First steps include clinical evaluation and stabilizing treatment, most often in an outpatient setting. Hospital stays are for major crises only, and are usually brief.
The struggles of everyday life will continue, and progress may be slow. But take hope from this: Many cases of mental illness are treatable, and you don’t have to do it alone.

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