Mental Health Services for Sierra County

During her regular report at the Sierra County Commission’s October 15 meeting, Jail Administrator Virginia Lee outlined initial activities pertaining to a state grant, which aims to bolster mental health and related services for inmates returning to the community. She relayed how the program’s first full week of operation saw a total of 25 individuals apply and then provided with initial screenings. Lee told commissioners how these cases, and subsequent individuals brought into the program, would progress through an assessment period and then would be directed to a growing variety of community-based services, which have or will be structured to meet evaluated needs.

Sierra County Manager Bruce Swingle has long stressed a desire to better address mental health issues within both the county and state. He has often emphasized how a decline in available services over past decades has disproportionally placed responsibility for mental health intervention upon law enforcement and the judicial system. This in turn, has placed a heavy burden upon county and state detention facilities, which regularly encounter inmates who might be better assisted by mental health counseling, or other therapeutic offerings.

While in-house programs have been developed at the Luna County detention facility and others around the state, Swingle has noted how a lack of community-based services promises those involved with in-house programs very little, if any, support once they are released.

Commissioners acknowledged how this situation too often translates into a high recidivism rate, as offenders find little structure and support upon which to build a renewed life.

In recognizing the beginning of the new local program October 15, Swingle said it marked a true milestone for Sierra County. He stated that work already accomplished by Lee and fellow program organizers would bring over a million dollars of new support to the community for the endeavor, and expressed his personal excitement at seeing the initiative move forward.

In a later interview October 22, program director Lee and program manager Lisa Daniel explained how this effort was defined as an Intervention Demonstration Program (IDP) and was being funded through a New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD) grant.

Enabled by a partnership between Sierra County and Olive Tree (a local community wellness firm), the new IDP effort has already initiated local counseling and group sessions, while still assessing other needs and service options for individuals within the program. In addition to Olive Tree (where Daniel serves as Executive Director), Sierra County’s IDP is engaging locally with Roots Counseling Center, Dorcas Brem Counseling Services, Desert Rain Counseling, and the Sierra Vista Hospital Clinic.

Although these services can help to extend treatment and counseling for individuals released from incarceration, Lee and Daniel explained how initial assessments have identified a myriad of other needs, which are vital to the success of anyone participating in the initiative.

Lee said many of those released from incarceration were found to be homeless and/or lacking sufficient food. Many more were found to require assistance with family or employment issues. She noted how these conditions can serve as immediate and difficult obstacles for even the most-sincere individual to overcome on their own.

Recognizing this, Lee and Daniel said efforts were immediately directed toward securing connections with local food banks and lodging establishments, as well as with others in the community who are eager to assist individuals in working through common obstacles to success.

Sierra County’s IDP is set up to engage inmates for 90-days following their release from incarceration. During this period, Lee and Daniel said each applicant will assessed and guided to available services. While IDP involvement ends after three months, program officials are committed to providing extended structure, oversight and support, and will encourage those involved continue utilizing these new and growing local services to further their advances.

Lee and Daniel acknowledged the valued assistance of local resident Sharon Finarelli in writing and obtaining the HSD grant, as well as a host of other volunteers and organizations that have stepped forward to assist in this much-needed endeavor.

Establishing Sierra County’s IDP and initial pathways for incarcerated individuals in need of mental and/or behavioral support, is recognized as only the first step toward the development of more broad reaching services for community members. Daniel emphasized her organization was committed to supporting the IDP initiative, but at the same time said Olive Tree was working to provide all Sierra County residents with a wide array of health and wellness programs. Other partner organizations joining to support the IDP likewise offer additional services and share a similar desire toward broadening options to better the health and well-being for everyone in the community.

Viewing the IDP as the beginning of a true support structure for Sierra County, both Lee and Daniel said their primary goal would be to lessen the impact of mental and behavioral health issues within the criminal justice system. At the same time, both indicated the initiative’s overall aim would be to spur a community-wide growth of interconnected mental and behavioral health services, to benefit all citizens.

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