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DAUGAARD: Steps forward in mental health

A significant number of Americans struggle with mental illness. For many the struggle is silent. Some experience short-term mental health problems. It's not uncommon for individuals temporarily to face mild forms of mental illness at some point d...

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A significant number of Americans struggle with mental illness. For many the struggle is silent. Some experience short-term mental health problems. It's not uncommon for individuals temporarily to face mild forms of mental illness at some point during their lives. For others though, it's a lifelong battle that requires consistent treatment. No community is untouched by mental illness. It affects schools, workplaces and families.

Last year the Helmsley Charitable Trust's Rural Healthcare Program released a study on mental health in South Dakota. The study found that our state has a high prevalence of undiagnosed and untreated depression as well as a very high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. While 87 percent of survey respondents reported receiving all needed medical care, only 64 percent reported receiving all needed mental health care, and just 54 percent received all needed substance use care.

Without proper treatment, individuals with mental health problems can land in the emergency room or in jail. When a person showing signs of mental illness behaves in a way that causes arrest, a court may order an evaluation of the person's fitness to stand trial. In recent years, the increased number of these court-ordered evaluations has caused delays for the mentally ill. In some instances, mentally ill individuals had to wait in jail several months for competency evaluations to be completed.

Recognizing this problem, South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson convened a task force to address delays in court-ordered mental health evaluations and shortfalls in treatment for the mentally ill within the justice system.

Funded by a grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the task force released its report in November. Among its findings, it recognized that our system lacks procedures to identify mental illness quickly after an arrest, and in many cases jails are not equipped to deal with mental health needs. In some cases, diversion options that are already authorized by statute are not available in all areas of the state.

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This legislative session, the Legislature is considering House Bill 1183, which would enact the task force's recommendations.

The legislation will provide law enforcement with tools to better identify and respond to mental health crises, prevent unnecessary jail admissions, and assist communities in building capacity to offer intervention services. The bill will also expand the pool of providers who can provide competency evaluations, and will shift funding from the Human Services Center directly to counties to perform these evaluations. An oversight council will monitor implementation and recommend changes to future legislatures.

I thank the Chief Justice and task force members for undertaking this work and offering their recommendations, and I thank the Helmsley Charitable Trust for the funding they provided.

I support HB 1183 and I hope legislators will send the bill to my desk. These common sense proposals will be steps forward for our state.

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