Financial crisis can harm mentally ill

By JIM FUHRMEISTER / Guest Columnist

I am very grateful to the people of Shelby County who supported me in my campaign for a full term as probate judge.

I received nearly 65 percent of the vote, and I truly appreciate this expression of confidence in the job I’ve done, the service rendered by everyone in the probate office and my commitment to the people of our county.

Thank you, Shelby County; I look forward to continuing to work for you.

Many of us have worked on solutions to issues facing our judicial system. Leadership Shelby County developed the Mental Health Court, which is successfully changing lives thereby benefiting everyone in our county.

Judge Bill Bostick is in the process of launching a Veterans Court that will provide our nation’s heroes, military veterans, access to services they deserve. Drug Court has a statewide reputation for success; Shelby County sets an example for the rest of the state.

But our greatest challenges lie ahead due to the severe financial crisis in the state budget. After hearing from stakeholders and considering alternatives, Governor Bentley has decided to complete construction of the new Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa so the state will continue to have a facility for the acutely mentally ill.

An important point to remember is that after hearing sworn testimony in cases of involuntary commitment, a Probate Judge has determined that the committed person presents a real and present danger of harm to himself or others.

Many of these consumers can successfully be treated and discharged from the hospital with appropriate outpatient treatment, but there is a group that cannot be released from a secure facility. Completion of Bryce Hospital is essential for community safety but this is only part of the problem for Shelby County.

One of my biggest worries as the judge in Shelby County most involved with mental health cases is that we will have a tragic event because we do not have adequate resources to respond to a consumer showing signs of harmful behavior.

It is not uncommon for me to have to wait several hours or even a day or more from the time a petition for involuntary commitment is filed until I have a secure psychiatric hospital bed available.

In the meantime, all I can do is tell the family to take precautions and call 911 if something bad happens. This leaves family members, law enforcement officers and the whole community at risk until a bed is located.

It is our responsibility to protect our citizens; adequate funding must be found and innovative treatment options for the mentally ill must be developed in this time of financial hardship.

Jim Fuhrmeister is the Shelby County probate judge.