School shooting sheds light on treating mentally ill

8:20 PM, Dec 17, 2012   |    comments
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As with most mass shootings, questions arise about the gunman's mental state. Now, many are urging leaders in East Tennessee to help those with mental illness before tragedy strikes.

In Knox County, officials are moving forward with a plan to help non-violent criminals get on the right track as soon as possible, by treating offenders for mental illness or dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones said putting offenders who need counseling behind bars is not the solution.

"It's not fair to the taxpayers, and it's not fair to these individuals either," said Jones. " They certainly don't get the help they need. Law enforcement officers are not trained to deal with the mentally ill."

Jones said up to a quarter of the inmates at the Knox County Detention Center have some type of mental illness, totaling 180 to 200 people.

The number of repeat offenders is startling. Jones said in a single year, 20 people accounted for 600 arrests.

"Probably 90% of these people probably have dual dependency, drugs and alcohol addiction, or mental illness."

Most of the arrests were attributed to minor crimes, like shoplifting, public intoxication, and indecent exposure.

While inmates do get help from Helen Ross McNabb Center counselors, Jones said the mentally ill need more.

"They have psychiatrists and clinical psychologists that come in and deal with these types of people, but again, it's not as specialized as we would like it. As this safety center would do."

The future safety center could be located behind the McNabb center off of North Central Street. Rather than arresting the offenders, officers would directly take them to the safety center, where they could get diagnosed and treated for three days.

"We've seen, not just in Connecticut but all of the other incidents that have occurred, horrific incidents," said Jones. "As law enforcement officers we see them on a daily basis and we know they're out there and we know that something must be done to help them."

After three days at the safety center, if the patient needed further help, resources would be available at another venue.

Jones said Arizona has a similar, successful program, and anticipates the center would be a success in East Tennessee.

The center would cost about $1.8 million to build, and roughly $1.8 million every year to operate.

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