County officials say more counseling programs needed |

County officials say more counseling programs needed

Angelique McNaughton

Amid the ongoing discussions about transportation and development, there is another conversation that is taking place somewhat under the radar. Several Summit County officials recently got together to discuss what they described as a "breakdown in the systems we currently operate from" regarding mental health and substance abuse services.

"Summit County has not financially prioritized health and substance abuse services, not because we don’t care, but because we haven’t known how to," said Rich Bullough, Summit County health director.

Bullough said if someone asked him to describe what the mental health and substance abuse picture looked like in Summit County, he couldn’t.

"I know we do a lot of things well, but there are a lot of gaps too," he said. "I don’t know how to answer that question."

Those gaps are what officials say contribute to recidivism and a majority of the county’s criminal cases, which overwhelmingly stem from drug and alcohol-related charges.

From January 2015 to April 2015, 163 charges for possession of a controlled substance and/or paraphernalia were filed in Summit County, with 101 driving under the influence and/or impaired driving charges, according to a Summit County staff report prepared in anticipation of the meeting. Approximately 35 percent of offenders are local Summit County residents, while another 40 percent are from either the Wasatch Back or the Wasatch Front.

Summit County contracts with Valley Behavioral Services to provide outpatient services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling. Approximately $2 million is annually spent on these services, with the county contributing approximately $160,000.

Healthy Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert’s alternative to Medicaid expansion, would have brought a lot to the table for the county in addressing the service gaps, Bullough said.

"Those Medicaid dollars, and in general health dollars, that would have come through would have been enormous for us," Bullough said. "Hopefully there is still a resolution in store or at least something that can bring some of those dollars back to the state because we know we are lacking in some core services."

Some services that aren’t offered in Summit County are for inpatient and detoxification treatment.

"If I have a heroin or drug addiction, there is a good chance that I will have a run-in with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office," said Matt Bates, Summit County chief prosecutor. "And if I’m intoxicated, when I get caught, I’ll get taken to the jail. We just had a young man, 23 years old, passed out at Wendy’s, almost unconscious. We took him to jail, because there is no detox facility. Medical resources are limited and detoxing in jail isn’t safe. But he sits there until he sobers up and is ready to see the judge.

"There is no analysis done to test their risk to themselves or others if they are released," Bates said. "It is purely a function of whether they have the money to get out."

For comparison, when someone is arrested in Salt Lake a process immediately begins to assess the suspect for their risk of flight and their danger to the community, Bates said.

"They look at treatment needs, as far as behavioral health issues, and within a few hours of being booked a determination has been made about whether or not the person really needs to be in jail or if they are a good candidate to be released to attend certain classes or meetings to help deal with sobriety," Bates said. "This usually ends up reducing the inmate population because we don’t have people sitting in jail who don’t really need to be there."

The recent passage of HB 348 during the legislative session further highlights the state’s emphasis on the county’s role in reducing recidivism. The bill’s goal is to reduce the prison population. It also emphasizes local responsibility and will require increased efforts by counties to provide substance abuse and mental health services for people who become entangled in the criminal justice system.

In light of the bill and an obvious need going unmet, Summit County health officials are planning to hold multiple community forums with the municipalities, community members and vested partners, to better identify the community’s mental health services gaps and needs.

"My first reaction was: this will be really expensive," Summit County Council member Roger Armstrong said. "But I’ve learned a lot about addiction after having to put three close friends into rehab facilities. The problem is it typically takes multiple cycles through a facility to get someone healthy and it requires a comprehensive plan and education.

"And to the average person without knowledge about the resources out there, you have no idea where to take the first step to get help," Armstrong said. "This is a much larger problem and it deserves thoughtfulness on our behalf and a program, whatever that may be, that works."

Judge Shauna Kerr said the stigma that is attached to the mental health and substance abuse is difficult to overcome and can hinder these conversations.

"Mental health has always had that connotation that people didn’t want to talk about it," Kerr said. "I think as a society we need to overcome that notion and we will maybe get away from that negative connotation. If people weren’t so uncomfortable, maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult for them to seek help."

Bullough said the upcoming community forums will serve as "the base of the pyramid" for officials as they start to explore these issues.

"I think this conversation was to introduce the topic get it on your mind and agenda. Moving forward I think there will be a lot more discussion on what is needed and how to go about getting it," he said. "This is expensive and no one wants to jus throw money at the issues, so we will be looking for innovative solutions and plans to get the most bang for our buck."

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