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A success story: Local officials see how peer respite can work

Captain Mike Woolman of the Lincoln Police Department and Kasey Moyer, executive director of the Mental Health Association presented on the partnership they formed to help mental health victims find recovery in the Lincoln, Neb., area. Their presentation Friday in Wadena brought out mental health professionals, county and city officials and law enforcement. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Keeping a job, friends and family was nearly impossible for Jamie, who struggled to deal with the voices in her head. The mental illness led her on a path to 53 convictions with arrests. Most people had written her off as helpless and worthless.

While there are days she still hears voices, she is now employed full-time as a peer specialist helping others deal with their mental illness. She is part of a growing list of peers in the Lincoln, Neb., area that are making a difference in the lives of the mentally ill, and helping improve interactions between the mentally ill and law enforcement. Their work appears to be leading to fewer negative interactions with law enforcement, according to a presentation heard Friday in Wadena.

Stories like Jamie's were steadily heard by county, city and mental health officials from the Wadena County area gathered to learn about how the Mental Health Association in Nebraska was changing lives strictly by employing people that had lived experiences.

Their stories were shared by MHA executive director Kasey Moyer, who had also been through a series of difficult situations that led her to helping others with mental diseases.

Moyer was joined by Captain Mike Woolman of the Lincoln Police Department. He shared his findings on how the program has changed the way he does his job.

The MHA has two respite homes where those dealing with a mental crisis can stay for up to five days in Lincoln. These homes are a model of a planned respite home for Wadena, Ladyslipper Respite Home.

A respite is a non-medical, home-like place that supports people experiencing distress related to mental health, substance use or other difficult life challenges. Moyer described the homes as a "bed and breakfast for people that can't afford it."

"It's not a coke and smoke joint," Moyer said. Moyer added that the homes were embraced by neighbors, and the community competed to decorate rooms seeing who could put together the best decorated room—all for people struggling to stay out of jail.

Those that have stayed at the homes are not just dropped after their stay. Moyer said they get support to find a job and she holds them accountable. The homes are also not a place for homeless people.

The homes are a place where people can get away from a crisis before it hospitalizes them or worse. Support is provided by peers, people who have experienced similar life struggles. The peers are trained to provide mutual support and know from their own lived experience that healing and recovery is possible.

Woolman described how his feeling changed about the program over time. When he first heard about a respite home coming into his jurisdiction he had concerns about what additional trouble this may bring as this would be a place where those in crisis would gather.

"I thought this is going to be a joke," Woolman said.

But his mind was changed as he started to work with people that he once chased. It changed the culture of the police department from looking at those with a mental illness as criminals to looking at them as people in need of help.

"It's really changed the way law enforcement looks at mental health," Woolman said.

The results have been successful. Woolman explained that success does not happen overnight. In fact, in the first year, there was no change in issues they saw. But after two years his department saw a reduction of 33 percent in those taken into emergency protective custody. That number grew to 44 percent after three years.

"It seems to grow stronger with time," Woolman said."It really does make a difference, but it does take time."

It seems to take time to develop a successful treatment plan with each individual, much like treating other diseases.

MHA was incorporated in 2001 and started providing services in 2008. After serving for 10 years, Woolman and Moyer now travel across the country speaking about how the peer respite has worked for them.

Wadena County Human Services director Tanya Leskey said the county has programs in place to serve the mentally ill and she noted that there are additional needs to deal with the mental health problem not just in Wadena County but in the entire state. She made the point that MHA is 10 years ahead of Wadena County, which is just in planning stages for a possible peer-run respite home in Wadena.

Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr, Jr., agreed that mental health is a concern in the county but that resources are spread very thin in the county right now. Woolman described the role of law enforcement as taking a bigger lead in referring individuals with signs of mental illness and taking more notes about the interactions that may be helpful in helping the individuals, things that can take more time. Carr added that while they might have only had two to three calls related to mental health years ago, they might have two to three a day at the present.

Wadena County received a $100,000 grant one year ago to develop a plan for a respite home, with Wadena the planned location. The grant is contingent on Wadena County providing to the commissioner of human services a plan to fund, operate and sustain the program and services after the one-time state grant is expended. Wellness in the Woods was subcontracted to develop the proposed planning of the respite services with more specific details to Wadena County in order to vet through the information and prepare for updating to the Department of Human Services, according to Leskey. This information is due to Wadena County by Aug. 31. By Nov. 1, the commissioner of human services in consultation with Wadena County, shall report to the committees in the Senate and the House over the mental health issues, the status of the planning and development of the peer run respite center, and the plan to financially support the program and services after the state grant is expended.