Tennessee’s Mental Health Courts Strained By Budget Cuts, Demand Increase

By Victoria Kim 07/31/18

The state ranks 35th in the nation when it comes to investing in mental health support.

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A new report by the Tennessean features the work of Tennessee’s mental health courts.

These courts divert non-violent offenders living with mental health issues to services instead of jail, but they're now struggling to handle the increasing caseload amid a lack of funding.

“You want to get them out of jail so they stay out,” said Judge Melissa Blackburn, who presides over Davidson County’s mental health court. “I don’t want them back.”

Artist Charles Chesney, who lives with bipolar disorder, is featured in the Tennessean for his experience in Davidson County’s mental health court. Chesney’s bouts of mania have gotten him in trouble with the law.

After one particular manic episode at his mother’s home, Chesney was arrested, but instead of ending up in jail, he went before the mental health court. Now, he is on probation and lives in a therapeutic halfway house, according to the Tennessean. He is also required to receive counseling, attend a 12-step program, and work.

Chesney said this court-mandated structure has given him a sense of stability that he did not have before.

But according to the publication, Chesney is among the lucky few who are able to go through the mental health court and find housing. The state’s mental health courts have struggled amid budget cuts, after reductions to the state’s TennCare program in 2005.

“As soon as TennCare went away, the numbers skyrocketed,” said retired Judge Dan Eisenstein. “Mental health court wasn’t set up to handle the numbers we were seeing.”

The controversial program was designed to cover the costs of prescription medications, psychiatric visits, inpatient care and provide transportation for people without access to private health insurance, according to the Tennessean.

Instead, people like Chesney are enrolled in the Behavioral Health Safety Net program, which pays for Chesney’s psychiatric medication.

While at least a third of people in Nashville jails live with a mental health issue, according to Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, the state is lagging behind the national average when it comes to investing in mental health support.

According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute, Tennessee’s mental health spending is well below the national average of $119.62 per capita, ranking it 35th in the United States.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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