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Therapy sure beats prison

By Tom Davis

The clients walk slowly through the Center for Health Care Services'hallways, their heads bowed. Every now and then they look up and talk.

They complain about staying in rooms where they can't have string orsharp objects. Their cabinets are locked, and their walls and floors are bare.

Some were shunned by their families. Many will still end up in thestreet, no matter how much help they get.

But it could be worse. They could be confined to a small, dirty stateprison cell with a bed, bars and toilet.

They could be dead, since Texashas executed more than 300 prisoners since 1982.

In Bexar County, Texas, those with criminal pasts who aresuffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental disorders aregetting attention through a program run out of the Center for Health CareServices building.

For many, the attention is something they've rarely gotten before.

"I went to jail on welfare fraud. I went $57 over the limit. Inever paid the fine," said Marguerite Darvishzad,who has received assistance from the Center for Health Care Services. "Iwanted to kill myself. They sent the police. They sent me to thehospital."

The San Antonio-area "jail diversion" program providesalternatives to people with mental illness. They get treatment, places to liveand medication.

They're also getting better. The program, which assists non-violentoffenders, has served as a national model for many places - including Bergen County- that have struggled to reduce overcrowding at state prisons and county jails.

Bexar County's program serves apopulation that's had among the highest crime and poverty rates in the country.An overwhelming majority of those helped - around 98 percent - do not commitanother crime, said Gilbert Gonzales, who runs the program.

Gonzales said he's heard skeptics complain that his program issubverting justice. He also noted the Bexar County Jail's population - about 16percent of whom have mental illness - has not decreased since the program beganabout two years ago.

To mental health advocates, Bexar County is merely a start.The county is proving what other regions could do if only they had the money.

"What's great about it is that it creates alternative options. Itcreates treatment options, whether it's a psychiatric emergency room or atriage or some community mental health program," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance forMentally Ill.

Two years ago, Bexar received a three-year, $900,000 federal grant tostart the program. Bergen County, by comparison,offers a similar service that operates with a two-year, $250,000 state grant.

Bergen County has resisted trainingpolice officers to identify people with mental illness and divert them totreatment. In Bexar County, however, thepolice view the training as a necessary part of their jobs, Gonzales said.

He noted a time when two police officers confronted a man who stole andthen drank a 79-cent can of soda. Normally, the officers would have arrested him,he said. In this case, the police identified his illness and sent him totreatment.

"In the past, they only knew how to stuff 'emand cuff 'em and put 'em injail," Gonzales said.

The program also has a 24-hour crisis hot line that refers people with mentalillness to treatment programs, and it offers assistance to officers at crimescenes where someone is displaying symptoms of schizophrenia and otherdisorders.

The people who typically need help are treatable, Gonzales said.

Darvishzad, whosuffers from depression with psychosis, said she has a son with similar issues.She helped him get help through the Center for Health Care Services. They bothfound additional services and housing at the local homeless shelter.

They haven't been to jail for a long time.

"I think this has been helpful," she said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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