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Mental health court making strides in Dawson County
HELP Court Emmett mug

Since February, Dawson County has been home to the Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities, or HELP, Court.

Originally in Hall County, the program and its clinical coordinator, Jessi Emmett, opened a Dawson County branch to help the in-and-out issue of mental health arrests.

"We find with mental health, things tend to be a revolving door, especially with the judicial system. They get off their meds and they start using drugs and get involved in a crime and get arrested," Emmett said. "Then they get out, they get stable, go off their meds again - it's just a constant cycle.

"What we're trying to do is get them out of that cycle by teaching daily changes they can make in their life."

The program opened at the end of February with only three participants. It has since quadrupled to 12.

The HELP program works similarly to Dawson County's drug and DUI treatment courts. While they both use the same phasing and sanction, or infraction consequence, HELP court does take into account the nature of its participants.

"I think we have more flexibility with sanctioning. We are able to personalize responses more toward what the participant needs," Emmett said.

"We utilize some of same sectioning, like jail stays and community service, but we have more flexibility to fit the punishment to the individual."

The program operates in five phases, with each phase being a different time frame with different requirements.

"At the beginning, we just want them to get acclimated," Emmett said.

"As soon as they enroll, we get them set up with the local mental health provider and psychiatrist. We also get them started on their medications, which takes an adjustment period, as well."

Once in a phase, participants attend individual and group counseling sessions. The program also requires participants to be working a full- or part-time job. Drug screens randomly throughout the week to monitor medication usage, as well as drug or alcohol use, are also required, as well as a court date every two weeks.

Once a patient is referred, Emmett personally visits the potential participant to do a clinical assessment. She also looks at past diagnoses and hospital records for anyone coming in for things such as illegal drug use or alcohol abuse, which could complicate a mental illness diagnosis at first glance.

"The goal that I have for this program is to link participants to community resources so that once they complete the program with us, they stay connected so they can be taken care of to continue their mental health and their support system in the community to build a solid foundation and not go right back into the system," she said.

"We try to link them with different community organizations such as Ninth District Opportunities, Avita and the Adult Learning Center. So far, Dawson County has been really supportive and open to our participants."

On top of social and community organizations supporting the court, Emmett said that county's various agencies have also supported HELP court.

"The different agencies in Dawson County, such as the Dawson County Commissioners, the detention center, law enforcement, district attorney's office, public defender's office and help from Drug and DUI Treatment Court, really collaborate to help make our program successful and possible."

With such a social stigma on people with mental health issues, Emmett hopes that this program might dispel some myths surrounding such issues and make people more aware of mental health issues as a whole.

"One in four adults will suffer from some kind of mental health issue every year in the United States," she said.

"I'm hoping that the more established we get, the more that stigma with mental health issues will dissipate.

"To me, there's no difference between bi-polar diagnosis and a heart disease diagnosis. It's not something you necessarily asked for, but it's something you have to deal with daily," she said.