Mental health courts seek to surround participants with services and people to mitigate the isolation that so often characterizes the lives of those who suffer from mental illness.

“It helps you to realize that you’re not by yourself and not everything is your fault,” Ben Billington said.

Billington has been attending the new Billings Adult Mental Health Court since last fall. He has not seen his new daughter in more than a year.

A 31-year-old with bipolar disorder, he was facing jail time for misdemeanor offenses relating to violating a restraining order — charges that stemmed from efforts to communicate with his former family, but never violence or threats of violence, he said.

Though Billington still rejects the fairness of those charges, he has thrived since being diverted into the new court program.  

In January, he began taking classes at Montana State University Billings, and he hopes to someday help others confronting failed marriage and lost love.

“As soon as I step on that campus, I’m happy,” Billington said. “I love being a part of something that’s larger than me.” 

Creating new bonds to the community through education, employment or volunteer service and treatment programs, such as group therapy, is a priority for the new court.

“This is really an innovative attempt at trying to get people linked up with resources and maintain these linkages,” said Cary Heck, professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Wyoming.

Heck, who has also worked in law enforcement, is charged with evaluating the Billings Adult Mental Health Court as it develops. He will be looking at both individual cases and measurable outcomes, such as how many participants stick to their medication regimen and abstain from other drugs, the number of their emergency room visits and how many have housing and employment, among other factors.   

To closely oversee the lives of “clients,” mental health court administrators must work closely together, tempering the traditional adversarial setting that generally prevails in a courtroom.

Before court starts every week, the judge, prosecutor and public defender meet to discuss cases with treatment providers and the probation officer. In those meetings, they track participants’ successes and failures and brainstorm sanctions and solutions to keep them stable. 

“The prosecutor still has to do their job. The judge has to do her job. I have to do my job. We all do our jobs, we know our jobs well. But we become problem-solvers together,” said Katie Barber, city public defender.

Through that structure, the participants are held accountable to the court. And through their group therapy sessions and joint court appearances, they are also spurred to feel accountable to each other.

“I’m encouraged by not only the team approach but when we get into court on Wednesday mornings and the clients come in, and they’re responsible not only to the judge and themselves, but to the whole group, all 14 of them,” said Deputy City Attorney Curtis Bevolden.

For Billington, who was not formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder until July 2009, the new connections to the community and others are as crucial as any medication.

“Somebody could be lonely, but when you’re bipolar, loneliness can drive you nuts,” Billington said.

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• About 30 percent of the inmates in Yellowstone County Detention Facility are being held for misdemeanors.
• Between 60 and 70 percent of the jail’s population suffers from a mental illness or co-occurring disorder, such as addiction.
• The jail regularly houses 100 to 120 misdemeanor offenders who been diagnosed with a mental illness or co-occurring disorder.
• As much as 40 percent of the general housing costs at the jail are spent on mentally ill people incarcerated on misdemeanors.
• About 60 percent of inmates are receiving psychotropic medication or treatment for mental health or a co-occurring disorder.
(Statistics from the program plan for the Billings Adult Mental Health Court.)