The Penobscot County Jail is pictured in this June 2021 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Kathryn Gardella of Hampden is a master’s of social work student at the University of Maine.

I am a master’s of social work student at the University of Maine. Like many, I feel disheartened by the dire need in our community for mental health support services. I am frustrated by the large amount of humans forced to languish in jails because alternative resources are not available.

The lack of behavioral health staff members and budget cuts has resulted in a decrease of available services. Individuals experiencing mental health crises are often forced into emergency departments, which are already deprived of staffing resources.

LD 1968, An Act To Expand Access to Mental Health and Crisis Care for Individuals in Jails and Individuals Experiencing Homelessness, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, provides a beacon of hope.

LD 1968 will create pathways by improving access to psychiatric treatment, wraparound services, supportive housing, and other continuum of care services. Permanent supportive housing is a necessity. Having access to stable housing improves health and wellbeing, academic performance, and financial success.

I watched the virtual committee hearing of LD 1968 and one comment struck me in particular, that people who have been incarcerated are expected to rehabilitate themselves. Due to omnipresent stigma, individuals who have been incarcerated face numerous barriers and obstacles that prevent them from obtaining gainful employment, stable housing, and a better life.

When these individuals continually have to fend for themselves, they only have access to the survival strategies that they utilized before, thus contributing to the vicious cycle of incarceration without treatment. Passage of this bill would significantly benefit individuals with co-occurring substance use disorders along with mental health challenges.

Penobscot County Jail has been grievously overcrowded and under-staffed. It is being utilized as a last resort, and holding individuals in jail is costly to the state. Diverting individuals to other resources that are more appropriate for them will lead to solutions that will greatly reduce the conflict of overcrowding.

As lack of staffing is a prominent problem, LD 1968 proposes funding the hiring and training of 20 new intensive case managers within the Office of Behavioral Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. These new staff members would provide adequate and involved support to individuals from the starting point of them being homeless or incarcerated to the end goal of the individuals finding stable housing. The intensive case managers will collaborate with the systems of the community, hospitals, jails, and law enforcement to provide continuity in services.

LD 1968 would provide secure treatment centers for non-violent individuals in the custody of jails when diversion is recommended by a prosecutor and approved by the judge. Evaluation measures are utilized to gain consent and ensure that each individual is empowered to provide agreement when being asked to engage in diversion services.

Real-time reporting to the Department of Health and Human Services is an essential component of LD 1968. Every 24 hours, psychiatric and community-based residential treatment facilities would provide information about admissions, the number of occupied beds, the number of available beds, the amount of staffed beds, and an explanation for why empty beds are not in use. This information would be transparently posted on the department’s website.

We need a drastic change in society to address the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens. LD 1968 implements many steps in the right direction.