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Lessons from the icy front

By Tom Davis

Its population is barely larger than Newark's. Many Alaskan communities in its frozen tundra are inaccessible by car.

But the state has one of the best mental health systems in the country.

That's because the first option for those who commit crimes - unlike New Jerseyans with similar issues - isn't usually a jail.

If people with mental health problems commit a crime, they will likely get a psychiatric screening. And if they go to court, they'll usually go to one that specializes in mental health.

If they're repeat offenders, the police will know them - and they may even help them.

Whether they're police officers, judges or parents, people work hard to ensure that sufferers of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder don't end up in Anchorage's cold, ice-ridden streets.

"This is divine intervention," said Wendi Shackelford, an officer with the Anchorage Police Department, who underwent training to treat the mentally ill in a more sensitive manner.

"I believe God is calling me to do this," she added.

God - and other inspirations - spur many Alaskans into action. Ironically, its rural and largely undeveloped landscape may actually work to the state's advantage in mental health care.

Anyone who would move to Alaska, some say, must be a risk-taker. If spending money to assist the down-and-out has any chance of working, Alaska will try it.

"There is definitely a sense of independence and a pioneering spirit that folks have," said Steve Williams, a project manager for Anchorage's mental health court. "Folks are willing to look at something and do what needs to be done to make it work."

The state has other incentives, too. Alaska has among the highest suicide rates in the country, despite having one of the smallest populations. The constant darkness in the winter is at least partially to blame, mental health advocates say.

But they also cite a feeling of isolation - particularly within the villages that are far removed from Anchorage and the state's more densely populated areas. Many people from the state's northern communities hitchhike or even walk to Anchorage to get care.

"I think the suicide percentages are highest in the native villages, and alcohol is most often involved," said Yvonne Akai Evans, president of the National Alliance for Mentally Ill's Anchorage chapter. "I feel that it is a co-occurring disorder."

Of course, New Jersey has its pressures, too. It's the most congested and densely populated state. Its cities, such as Newark and Camden, have had among the highest murder rates in the country.

But New Jersey has no mental health court. It has only one "jail diversion" program, in Bergen County, that helps provide alternatives to people with mental illness who commit a crime.

Unlike Alaska, New Jersey passed a law 16 years ago that essentially required psychiatric screening for such people. But it was never fully funded, said Elaine Goodman, coordinator of the NAMI New Jersey Enforcement Education program.

In his recent budget proposal, acting Governor Codey proposed spending $10 million to beef up screening centers that are used by law enforcement, families and patients themselves as a gateway to mental-health services. But mental health professionals say the funding is "light," and won't solve the problem.

Some also have problems with the way the law was enforced. "The police were never adequately informed of [the law's] implications nor trained in mental illness education as outlined in the law, which states that law enforcement should be trained as needed," Goodman said.

"We all know what 'as needed' means. Zilch, or close to it."

In Alaska, mental health advocates and professionals believe the best way to show how something works is to prove that it can.

Ask T.J. Sardy. His son was fine in college, until he started having "young boy problems." He started breaking into houses and hoped to find a woman who didn't exist.

He was arrested. But he didn't go to jail. He went to mental health court, and now there is a plan for him to begin treatment.

If he was in New Jersey, he'd probably be pining away in a 12-by-10, concrete-and-steel cell, waiting to hear back from his lawyer. But Sardy's son has a police officer who keeps track of him and uses the system to steer him toward help.

And Officer Shackelford from the Anchorage Police Department also pushes him to help himself.

"Wendi's had some excellent training," said his dad, T.J. "Forever, I will be grateful."

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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