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Sarpy Board approves UNMC inmate mental health fellowship program

Posted at 5:23 PM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 23:10:31-04

SARPY COUNTY, Neb. (KMTV) — On Tuesday, the Sarpy County Board approved a program that will create a partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to assess and provide care to inmates who are suffering from mental illness while incarcerated.

According to a release from the county, the board approved “Nebraska’s first forensic psychiatry fellowship” with a vote of 5-0 over 5.25 years.

“This partnership with UNMC will be a game-changer for mental health treatment in Sarpy County,” said Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly. “This fellowship will assist inmates who are experiencing mental health crisis and those with serious mental illnesses, and hopefully get them on a path that doesn’t lead back to jail.”

Under the agreement, the University of Nebraska Medical will provide one psychiatrist a year to help with psychiatric services “primarily for inmates with serious mental illness” at a cost of $1.2 million to the county.

The fellowship psychiatrist will “provide psychiatric treatment, prescribe medication, help with medication management, provide court testimony and reports, and potentially complete competency evaluations.”

A training site for the fellowship will be developed at the new Sarpy County Correctional Center and will share the cost of faculty and a program director to support the center’s behavioral health care unit.

A planning phase is in the works and patients “can be seen starting in 2023” shortly after the new Sarpy County Correctional is set to open.

Organizers of the groundbreaking program say many had a hand in its creation.

“This fellowship is the result of innovative collaboration by many dedicated and committed groups who prioritize mental health initiatives including the Sarpy County Sheriff, County Attorney, Public Defender, Region 6, the County Board, UNMC, and a number of others,” said Commissioner Angi Burmeister. “We are grateful for the opportunity to work as partners with UNMC toward this common goal of improving mental health services and are excited to move forward with the first step – a formal agreement for the first forensic psychiatry fellowship in Nebraska.”

“This has been a really deliberate process that we’ve engaged in with Sarpy County, and we’re absolutely thrilled,” said Dr. Howard Liu, Chair of the UNMC College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. “It’s innovative not only with the fellowship but in the process, we’re creating and supporting a workforce. This is creating a new pipeline of experts, working right here in our community. This is a tremendous need and will help the quality of care and improve the system.”

While Sarpy County inmates already have access to mental health services, the program will allow on-site treatment, as opposed to treatment at the Lincoln Regional Center, and should help expedite the process.

“At least a quarter of our inmates will benefit from having a psychiatrist on site,” said Jo Martin, Interim Sarpy County Corrections Director. “This is a groundbreaking program because it’s filling in missing pieces that the system is lacking – to bring better, more accessible psychiatric care to inmates.”

Having access to mental healthcare is a concern not only for inmates and staff at correctional facilities but for the community as a whole as more than a third of inmates with serious mental illness are more likely to commit another crime after jail, Martin said. Having access to such a program during and after their release could give them the tools to succeed, she said.

In addition to serving the county’s adult inmates, the program will also provide some assistance for the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Mental Health Unit, the Sarpy County Wellness Court and the Sarpy County Juvenile Justice Center.

“This program is addressing a need that goes unnoticed in a lot of ways because we’re talking about inmate populations,” said Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Kate Gatewood. “This will have a significant impact getting to the core of the recidivism issue with those who have serious mental illnesses.”

Following their part in the program, psychiatrists serving in the fellowship will be eligible to become board certified.

Also on Tuesday, the board approved a measure to allow the county to purchase a database called Open Lattice using $51,700 in grant money from the Department of Justice.

The database would allow citizens to volunteer information that could help law enforcement better help them in crisis situations.

“Their primary care doctor, diagnosis, the medication that they’re on, family members, who to contact in case of an emergency, what not to do if they’re in crisis," said Sgt. Rob Hillabrand, mental health project coordinator at the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. "Our goal is to slow down or keep the mentally ill from constant incarceration."

You can read a full copy of the agreement by clicking here.

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