I was disappointed to read about the Pennington County Commissioner’s recent decision not to submit a proposal to the Leona Helmsley Charitable Trust for the purposes of a mental health study focusing on western South Dakota. A proposal, as I understand it, that would have had a zero-dollar impact to taxpayers.

What the commission voted down was an opportunity to gain knowledge into what the mental health needs are in western South Dakota. This vote wasn’t about policy or committing one taxpayer dollar. It was a denial to learn any new information on what the problems may or may not be. We rejected the opportunity to learn valuable data about our mental health issues…for free.

As a professional who works with many mentally ill clients, it’s a sad day when we try to pass the buck and say that the mental health of our own residents is a state issue and not a county one. Frankly, mental health is a human issue and because we don’t have a good solution, we are already paying the price for refusing to address a need that is not going away. We pay for it with law enforcement time, emergency room costs, jail occupancy and other overextended tax payer funded resources who provide sideways mental health services to people when their core mission is not mental health.

Mental illness in Pennington County has now been criminalized and we are using the county jail to house the mentally ill while either awaiting placement at the Human Service Center in Yankton or getting released without any treatment or medication intervention.

My colleagues and I can attest to the fact that getting real and lasting help for the mentally ill experiencing an acute event in Pennington County feels like an insurmountable task at times. The emergency room doesn’t want them because they aren’t emergent enough. Regional West often can’t take them because they are either full or won’t take them if they have physical disabilities, dementia, or autism, because of the physical risk they pose to their staff. The state’s attorney’s office is reluctant to sign an order for involuntary commitment and if they are admitted to Regional West, the stay isn’t long enough to complete a care plan and allow sufficient time for medications to become effective or be adjusted.

If a person is unfortunate enough to be elderly with a mobility issue AND mentally ill, there is literally no place to admit for stabilization and medication management while getting cared for physically.

We had a nursing facility client last year that was sent to the emergency room no less than fifteen times in one month and desperately needed placement at the Health Services Center in Yankton. Every time, the patient was sent back to the nursing facility from the hospital via ambulance without notice and untreated only to repeat the same behaviors. The patient was not fit for congregate living and it was an unfair burden to place upon the facility because they were not staffed to provide one-on-one care for a person who posed a danger to other residents and themselves.

Mental health is an every person problem and we are all responsible for doing our part. As western South Dakotans we take pride in our autonomy and taking care of our own. I challenge those who voted against submitting the application for the grant to offer an alternative solution to a problem that affects us all. Let’s address this issue in a way that respects the needs of our mentally ill community and those who serve them.

Jenny Schmidt
Black Hills Advocate
Rapid City

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