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DOJ Plans Mental Health Initiatives

Thursday, September 6, 2018  
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September 6, Wisconsin Health News

The Department of Justice wants to spend hundreds of thousands on mental health initiatives, but mental health advocates said they were left out of developing the proposals so far and have concerns about their sparse details. 

Attorney General Brad Schimel asked lawmakers to approve $180,000 in discretionary funding to launch a suicide awareness campaign for law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, which he said is needed as 12 officers committed suicide in Wisconsin during the last 19 months.

“That is far more than we lose to duty-related deaths,” he wrote in the letter. “This trend cannot be ignored.”

Schimel also wants to use $20,000 to continue funding the Law Enforcement Chaplains Program that was started in July, which supports volunteers that work with law enforcement and their families.

The DOJ plans to spend $200,000 to launch a research project that evaluates the effectiveness of different programs on mental health in schools. The project is meant to create a "scalable 'mental health wellness' mentorship program for any school in Wisconsin."

And the DOJ also wants to use $44,000 to establish training standards and protocols focused on crisis intervention for officers, that include recognizing the signs of mental illness.

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee have until Sept. 21 to request the committee meet formally on the proposal or else they’ll go into effect.  

Shel Gross, Mental Health America of Wisconsin public policy director, said he couldn’t support the committee approving the request without assurances that advocates and state agencies like the Department of Health Services and Department of Public Instruction are included in discussions. Gross said he’s glad DOJ is interested in mental health, but other advocates in the state have told him they weren’t consulted.

“It is clear from those who I have heard back from that DOJ did not consult with advocates who I would consider to have important expertise with regard to the areas they are proposing to address,” he wrote in an email. “Without more information about what DOJ has considered, I don’t know whether their proposals are sufficiently integrated and consistent with other efforts the state is currently undertaking in these areas.”

Mishelle O'Shasky, chair of the Wisconsin Council on Mental Health, who also wasn’t consulted, said she had a “plethora of concerns” about the proposals, which she described as “vague.”

“I don’t think DOJ knows anything about this stuff, so it just seems really weird that they would be involved in mental health issues, period,” she said.

Joanne Juhnke, policy director for Wisconsin Family Ties, questioned the proposed research on mental health programs in schools. “We certainly weren’t contacted,” she said.

“Given that our state’s school mental health expertise doesn’t really reside in the Department of Justice, that’s concerning,” she said. “There are no details here.”

Alec Hanna, a spokesperson for the DOJ, said that department employees have "considerable school safety expertise" and provide regular trainings on the relationship between school safety and mental health, he said. They've been talking with stakeholders for months as they've launched their Office of School Safety, he said.

"This is a continuous process and we are meeting with mental health advocates next week," Hanna said. "In fact, the idea for researching the costs and benefits of a peer-to-peer mentorship program actually came out of a meeting with stakeholders several months ago."

Hanna said that they're proposing to measure the efficacy of the program in conjunction with a Wisconsin college or university. 

DOJ plans to award millions leftover from an initial round of school safety funding to boost mental health, create school safety intervention teams and make additional security upgrades. That proposal has also drawn concerns from mental health advocacy groups in part over the training that school staff will have to do to receive funding.