County celebrates new mental health diversion program

FORT WALTON BEACH – The deaths of two of the last four Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputies killed in the line of duty were at the hands of people suffering from untreated mental illness, Sheriff Larry Ashley recalled.


“That untreated mental illness has proliferated throughout our community, and it continues to do so,” Ashley told more than 100 people who gathered Wednesday morning to commemorate the county’s new mental health diversion program.


The program is only the third in Florida after those in Miami and Orlando. It aims to stabilize people who are going through mental health and/or substance abuse-related crises that may otherwise result in low-level criminal charges.


Such men and women generally are not violent criminals and are in desperate need of treatment more than jail time, according to county officials.


The county’s mental health diversion program officially began Jan. 1 in a Bridgeway Center facility on Shell Avenue, where Wednesday’s ceremony took place.


The facility, which had stood empty for the past seven years after having served as a crisis stabilization unit, recently received new paint, carpeting and other updates from the county.


The facility has room to serve 18 people at a time for up to 90 days, so that 72 people can be served annually. Its first client began being helped Tuesday.


At Wednesday’s ceremony, Ashley said Floridians and other Americans have been “reckless” in the past in the way they’ve dealt with mentally ill people, “whether they’re homeless or whether they’re drug addicts or whether they’re having a mental breakdown or a mental illness.


“We’ve almost ignored this population, and we’ve done it at our own risk. I hope this (mental health diversion program) is just a start” toward big positive changes, he added.


County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, who is a former longtime licensed clinical social worker, said at Wednesday’s event that Florida is 49th in the nation in the amount of funding it allocates for treating the mentally ill.


“This is unacceptable and a sad state of affairs,” Ketchel said. “It is unacceptable that in Florida our jails have been the largest mental health facilities. We can do better, and today our community shows with our actions that we care enough to make these needed changes.”


Among the many other officials at the ceremony were state Sen. George Gainer, state Rep. Mel Ponder and former Okaloosa County Judge Patt Maney, each of whom has been highly instrumental in helping make the new mental health diversion program a reality.


Ketchel noted that Maney started a mental health court program when he was a judge.


“I kinda got involved in this as a judge because I kept seeing the same people coming through court, and I got involved at the jail because our jail was overcrowded and I was looking for ways to get people out of jail that didn’t need to be there,” Maney said. “I view jail as a place to protect the public and to punish wrongdoers, and not for treatment.”


While the county jail in Crestview has 594 beds, it had 699 inmates as of Tuesday.


Ketchel said the county hopes to eventually build a 100- to 150-bed mental health diversion center next to the jail.


The budget for the first year of the diversion program on Shell Avenue, including startup costs, totals $620,000.


County officials plan to use $250,000 from the state to fund operations through June 30 and $370,000 in county funding for the rest of the year.


The program is administered by Tallahassee-based Big Bend Community Based Care Inc., while Bridgeway Center provides all sheltering services for clients within the county.


All clients are selected by judiciary criteria and processed and monitored by the county Pretrial Services Department.