Feature Spotlight on mental health: New AL mental health commissioner visits Cullman | CullmanSense

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Spotlight on mental health: New AL mental health commissioner visits Cullman

Pictured are Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, Rep. Randall Shedd, Cullman County Probate Judge Tammy Brown, State Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear and Mental Healthcare of Cullman Director Chris Van Dyke./ Courtesy of Randall Shedd

CULLMAN - On Thursday, State Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview hosted a meeting at the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) training center, to introduce new State Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear to professionals in his district who are on the front line of Alabama’s mental health struggle.

Mental Healthcare of Cullman Director Chris Van Dyke talked about the struggles of a mental health system short on resources and facilities, while Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper and Marshall County Sheriff Scott Walls shared the perspectives of law enforcement officers who have to deal with mental health issues when all else has failed.

In a conversation with The Tribune, Shedd described the event as “an open dialog about the challenges of law enforcement professionals and mental health professionals in dealing with mental illness.  It wasn’t a blame game, just a very good meeting.”

Shedd spoke about what led him to this event.

“I serve four different counties,” he said.  “Three of them, since April of 2016, have experienced three horrific tragedies dealing with mental health.  I’ve been hearing about it for quite some time.”

The wake-up call

His own turning point, according to Shedd, occurred on Apr. 19, 2016, when mentally ill gunman Daniel Blackmon shot three people near Blountsville, and died in a shootout with police at the intersection of Highway 79 and Highway 278 a short time later.

Shedd admitted, “It was a wake-up call for me.  I realized things are getting more and more serious.  I started talking with mental health officials about the issue, and about what we can do.”

Jamie Wallace and the Federal Court

On Dec. 5, 2016, a class action suit began in an Alabama Federal Court, brought by mentally ill prisoners and their advocates against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), alleging that the state’s treatment of mentally ill patients amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.  The trial opened with the testimony of Jamie Wallace, a severely ill inmate imprisoned for the murder of his mother.  Ten days after his opening testimony, Wallace hanged himself in his prison cell while awaiting a mental evaluation ordered by the same judge before whom he had testified.

In the end, the court ruled in favor of the prisoners, labeling ADOC’s mental health policies “horrendously inadequate” and leveling such charges against the agency as failing to provide adequate treatment, failing to identify and deal with suicide risks, and punishing prisoners for exhibiting symptoms of their mental illnesses.  The court mandated that ADOC come up with a solution that is “both immediate and long term.”

For Shedd, the response to mental illness that leads to criminality needs to begin long before the patient is locked in a prison cell.

“Now we’re dealing with prisons and the need to offer mental health care in prisons,” observed Shedd, “but we don’t just need to be taking care of prisoners.”

Seeing the problem

Shedd concluded, “Awareness is something we talked about in particular.  The public is becoming more aware of mental health issues, and more aware of the dangers of mental illness.  It’s going to take some time, but this is something I’m going to be discussing with my colleagues in the legislature.

Sheriff Matt Gentry

Gentry, who has been vocal with his concerns about the condition of the state’s mental health system for some time now, was glad to be face-to-face with Alabama’s top mental health official.

“It gave us the opportunity to inform the commissioner and (Shedd) about issues we face with people who are mentally ill,” the sheriff explained.  “There are evil people all over the world, and not every criminal is a mental health issue; but there are mental health issues all over the state that are not being addressed.  There needs to be somewhere for these people to get help, but there’s not any now.”

When asked if Shedd or Beshear had mentioned possible upcoming mental health actions in Montgomery, Gentry responded, “We didn’t talk about legislation; we just told them about what we’re experiencing.  This is not a new issue.  We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years.  We’re glad we got to talk to them about this.  Now it’s time for a response.”

See these related stories from our February mental health series:

http://cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/17/short-term-solution-long-ter... - interview with Sheriff Matt Gentry

http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/18/inside-cullman-s-mental-... - interview with Chris Van Dyke of Mental Healthcare of Cullman

http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/09/cullman-city-police-chie... - interview with Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper

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