HELENA – Some Democratic legislators and others on Monday highlighted bills they said could help improve Montana’s mental illness treatment system by making some simple, cost-effective changes.

They said the package of bills focuses on providing effective, early intervention in the community for those with mental illness and could help prevent suicides and other tragedies.

Joining them at the news conference was John Wilkinson, a social worker and father of a 26-year-old son serving his sentence in the forensic unit at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

He said his son has been in the forensic unit for more than two years after pleading guilty to three felonies for seriously injuring two people, including a deputy sheriff. The court found him “guilty but mentally ill” and assigned him to serve in the forensic unit.

“We know he needed to be hospitalized in the forensic unit for his and others’ safety,” Wilkinson said. “But he is getting better, and the medication he is receiving has virtually eliminated his psychoses and delusions.”

The cost of his son’s two-year commitment at Montana State Hospital will exceed $400,000 in state general fund money, Wilkinson said.

When his son is released, he will require ongoing mental health treatment under a supervised treatment program in Missoula, Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson praised Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, which encourages the state parole and probation system to work more effectively for offenders with serious mental illnesses.

It will compel guilty but mentally ill parolees to follow requirements of their supervised mental health treatment program, he said.

Caferro said legislators have a package of bills to deal with mental health issues and are seeking “to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.”

“We need legislators to stand up,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Montana. “I’ve never seen it like I have this session.”

In a response later, House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said, “I’m excited to hear about my colleagues on the other side of the aisle working on mental health issues. We’re open to a lot of these bills, and we’ll be looking forward to productive hearings and floor debates.”

Caferro said she and Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, had successfully led the effort on an appropriations subcommittee to direct $400,000 in the major appropriations bill into crisis service and jail diversion care.

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said she served on an interim committee that studied some of the mental health and correctional issues. Some states have greatly reduced inmate recidivism rates by focusing on mental health needs of inmates, she said.

Among the bills mentioned were one to assist prisoner re-entry programs by focusing on the continued treatment of any mental illness and one to require the state Department of Public Health and Human services to develop housing plans for mentally ill patients being discharged from the state hospital.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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The mentally ill can and do get well. Becoming contributing members of society is their ultimate goal. Democrat and Republican legislators recently becoming aware of the extent of the problems with treatment and services have brought forth bills that make sense monetarily. Like any government agency, the Montana jails, prisons, and State Hospital are ineffective and costly. There are better and smarter ways to address the mentally ill and it is in the best interest of the public to support these measures for they will serve public safety and tax dollars. To learn more about how the mentally can get well search Montana NAMI

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