Proposed Lake County wellness center would offer alternative to those in crisis
Calling it the ethical and moral thing to do, Lake County leaders are establishing a wellness center to serve people experiencing mental health crises and help them avoid getting caught in the criminal justice system.
Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart said wellness center staff would be able to determine what people in crisis need and provide care.
"Sometimes it's as simple as a change of medication," Hart said. "These psychotropic meds can change based on your body chemistry."
While the full financing and timeline have yet to be worked out, the plan is for Round Lake-based nonprofit Nicasa Behavioral Health Services to run the center's day-to-day operations. Nicasa CEO Bruce Johnson said there will likely be three to five employees at the center at any one time, including a nurse and a combination of mental health counselors, case managers and support staff.
In addition to helping close the revolving door for people with mental health issues in the jail system, Johnson said the wellness center will provide a place for people to take loved ones who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
"The real goal is to provide a third option from the criminal justice system and the emergency departments of our hospitals," Johnson said.
Based on similar centers he has visited, Johnson said people typically spend a few hours there before they are either stable enough to return home or can be referred elsewhere for an elevated level of care.
Hart said people who lack transportation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, might miss regular doctors' appointments and not get the help they need managing their mental health symptoms.
"It's upsetting to police officers to arrest the same person over and over who just happens to be sick," Hart said. "They get arrested and cycle in and out of jails and the court system and never get the help they really need."
Anthony Vega, chief of staff for the Lake County Sheriff's Office, said at any given time 40% of the inmates at the Lake County jail are taking some kind of psychotropic medication.
"People not receiving adequate care for mental illness might medicate themselves with illegal substances which can exacerbate their problems," Vega said. "The hope is that in the long run they will get the help they need, won't have to self-medicate and won't commit crime."
County officials and a group of volunteers are searching for a suitable space for the center.
"It needs to be a space conducive for those experiencing a mental health crisis, not sterile like a doctor's office; it would be welcoming," Vega said.
Hart said she has been in touch with generous donors interested in helping make the wellness center become a reality.
"There are donors who have someone very close to them with mental illness and they know this would be a lifesaver for other people," Hart said. "Hopefully as soon as we find a space we can move on it."
Hart was hesitant to give the project a firm timeline because of the difficulties finding the right space. And many other details still need to be worked out, including the financing.
A significant portion of the expense might be paid through private donations, revenue collected from video gambling machines and grants recently received by county agencies.
In October, the Lake County State's Attorney's Office received $750,000 to staff and supply the center.
"This center will allow us the opportunity to enhance our current efforts to divert those people away from the court system and toward the help they need," State's Attorney Eric Rinehart said. "This has been a longtime goal for our county and I am excited to see it come to fruition."
Other funds could come from $1.45 million the sheriff's office has received through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's national grant-giving initiative to reduce over-incarceration and advance racial equity.
"Now more than ever people understand and are learning about how mental illness impacts people's lives," Hart said. "It's just so important that they are treated with dignity and respect and get access to the services they need."