Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, authored a bill that advocates say "is so transformative that it could be a really strong model for other states to implement." Credit: Submitted photo

A bill passed unanimously by the Legislature is expected to bring some reform to Mississippi’s long-troubled mental health care system, which often strands people with mental health issues in jail with long delays in treatment and has been under scrutiny from federal authorities for years.

House Bill 1222 provides solid solutions to national mental health issues and is so transformative that it could be a really strong model for other states to implement,” said Dr. Katherine Pannel, a psychiatrist, president elect of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association and longtime Mississippi mental health advocate.

The measure, authored by Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, would provide mental health training for Mississippi’s law enforcement, often the first point of contact for those suffering illness. It would also expand a court-liaison program, helping families dealing with the court system. It also seeks to improve cooperation between county governments and regional commissions that oversee community mental health centers.

The bill faced some realpolitik setbacks as it made its way through the Legislature. The initial version would have created a tax on vaping products that was expected to bring in $6.5 million a year, more than half of which would go to help counties house people people needed mental health services. But the GOP supermajority in the Legislature would not go for any new tax, so now the measure awaits lawmakers approval of a general appropriation. Creekmore expects the Legislature to provide about $4 million a year for the program.

At one point the bill was amended to include measures proposed by Rep. Kevin Felsher, R-Biloxi, that would have set some stringent restrictions on people with mental illness being held in jail to await treatment. It would also have allowed counties to contract for people to receive private mental health services instead of waiting in jail, with counties paying rates capped at what Medicaid would pay. These measures faced political opposition and were removed, but supporters say the final bill is a major step in the right direction for mental health reform.

“It’s not a panacea,” said Senate Public Health and Welfare Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “But one of the most important things that has happened in mental health here over the last several years is that there’s attention being focused on the problem.”

Creekmore was tasked last year with leading a House subcommittee on mental health. He is credited with working to get mental health services, law enforcement, the courts and local governments on the same page in dealing with people with mental health issues in authoring “The Mississippi Collaborative Response to Mental Health Act.”

The final version of the bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously, and awaits Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature and approval of funding in the final days of the legislative session. Creekmore said he is confident both will happen.

“Within eight years, every police officer in Mississippi will have a basic knowledge of how to deal with mental health issues, which will help keep them safer, and help others dealing with mental health crises,” Creekmore said. He said that similar training in Tennessee has greatly decreased the numbers of injuries to officers.

Mississippi Department of Mental Health Director Wendy Bailey said, “HB 1222 aims to provide assistance by both providing training for law enforcement and in helping expand programs that work to divert individuals from inpatient stays at state hospitals to community services near them.”

DMH provides Mental Health First Aid training for law enforcement. The bill would require all officers to receive this eight-hour training over the next eight years. Crisis intervention team officers would receive more intensive, 40-hour training. Creekmore said each law enforcement department would be required to have a CIT officer, or to contract with another nearby agency to have one it could call.

The bill would expand the state’s pilot court liaison program, requiring counties with 20 or more mental health commitments a year to have one, either in the local community mental health center or chancery clerk’s office. These liaisons families as they approach the court system help find treatment options other than commitment to a hospital where appropriate. Bailey said, “We have already seen positive outcomes from the pilot court liaisons over the last year.”

Creekmore said the bill would also require better reporting of mental health cases and issues on the state and local level, and revamp requirements for the state mental health board and regional commissions that help oversee community mental health centers. This will help the state better track where issues are and be able to address them, and improve coordination.

“We believe that services and supports are the shared responsibility of state and local governments, communities, family members and service providers,” Bailey said. “We’re in favor of anything that can strengthen communication, relationships and partnerships, and believe this bill aims to do exactly that.”

Bryan said: “One of the things that’s in Sam’s bill is based on something tried in Monroe, Itawamba and Lee counties. When a family member gets to the point they don’t know what to do, they go to the county clerk’s office, because they know they will do something — same as going to the emergency room, because you know they’ll do something. That starts a legal process, and commitment is necessary in some cases, but to a large extent that’s left over from a time when we didn’t know better and didn’t have any services. This will have someone from the community mental health center on call to go to the clerk’s office and talk to the family, discuss some alternatives and what things are available in the community. That conversation has had a very good effect in reducing the number of commitments, and that’s a good thing in and of itself.”

Pannel said, “We have not seen our Legislature this active on mental health and substance abuse issues in a while.”

“Representative Creekmore has been a true mental health champion in Mississippi,” Pannel said.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.