Fighting mental illness in jail

What’s the best way to jail someone who has a mental illness?

That’s the question the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office is trying to figure out.

The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office says around 40 percent of the county’s inmates have been previously diagnosed with a mental illness.

The county is investing resources into treating inmates who have a mental illness in the hopes that when they get released, they’ll stay out of jail.

La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson said, “We have a lot of our inmates that are mentally ill.”

Helgeson said it’s challenging to identify inmates who have a mental illness.

“It’s often difficult to know, is it the mental illness that’s driving the crime, or is somebody a criminal who happens to have mental illness?” Helgeson said.

Because of the difficulty, the county recently hired a full-time therapist.

“Put a lot of resources to try to identify those that need help and getting them their help,” Helgeson said.

One of the biggest challenges is that on average, inmates only stay in the jail for 13 days.

“It is difficult when we don’t have a lot of time to work with them. With all the methamphetamine and heroin use, sometimes it can be a week to 10 days for our health professionals to really make a determination whether the person has a serious mental health problem or if it’s just the drugs that they’ve been taking that are working the way out of their system and causing the behavior that we’re seeing,” Helgeson said.

Amber Sherman, who works in Behavioral Health at the Mayo Clinic Health System said, “A lot of our patients are co-occurring with addiction and mental health disorders.”

Sherman said for the best results, it’s important to treat both mental illness and addiction simultaneously.

“It’s a chicken or the egg thing. I have an addiction or I’m drinking because I’m depressed, or am I depressed because I’m drinking? The work is not to sort that out, it’s to address both of them at the same time,” Sherman said.

If people don’t get help while in jail, Helgeson said the outlook isn’t good.

“The chances are very high that they’re not going to follow through with treatment and just end up back here in the jail,” Helgeson said.

That is why the jail is trying to provide medication, medical records and social workers to inmates when they leave.

“If we’re able to keep that person in treatment, many times we won’t see them back at the jail, and the less they’re here, that means likely the less crimes they’ve committed and the less victims we have in the community,” Helgeson said.

Even though it’s hard to measure, the sheriff does think those initiatives are improving things.

Another group helping out is the outpatient clinic at La Crosse County Human Services.

They’re currently sending two staff members to the jail to provide therapy, and they’re also providing therapy to people recently released from jail.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, you can attend a community discussion with Helgeson next Wednesday at noon at English Lutheran Church in La Crosse.