Mississippi Rep. Kevin Felsher is one of five state lawmakers nationwide to win a Mental Health America award for championing policies to reform the state’s troubled mental health and substance abuse care systems.
Felsher, a Republican from Biloxi, was cited for sponsoring legislation to implement Mississippi’s 988 suicide prevention hotline, and for advocating for the state’s first mental health diversion center and mental health diversion court.
“Mental Health America heartily congratulates and humbly thanks these dedicated legislators from both sides of the aisle who, through their actions, deeds and words, have increased awareness and access to mental health and substance use services and supports in their states,” said Debbie Plotnick, executive vice president for the national nonprofit.
Felsher, working with the state Department of Mental Health, local mental health providers, law enforcement, courts and local government, is helping establish a mental health diversion center in Harrison County. The center will serve as a “single point of entry” for local law enforcement to deliver people dealing with mental health issues. It will help determine the level of care each needs, from a short stay in a “living room” setting for evaluation to more acute care beds. Its goal is to prevent people with mental health problems being jailed or receiving improper care.
Mississippi’s system often strands people with mental health issues in jail with long delays in treatment and has been under scrutiny from federal authorities for years.
Felsher said the Harrison County center can serve as a pilot or model for the rest of the state.
Felsher, working with Reps. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, and Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, also worked on successful legislation to provide mental health training to state law enforcement, expand a court liaison program helping families deal with the court system and create a diversion system for circuit courts to try to provide people with mental health issues help instead of incarceration.
Felsher also unsuccessfully pushed legislation to help counties to pay for housing indigent people with mental illness in private institutions instead of jails.
“I just don’t believe that because you’re poor and have mental illness you should wind up in jail,” Felsher said.
Felsher said the state has made some substantial gains in mental health care and policies, but still has a long way to go, and that he and others are committed to making improvements.
“I think we are trending in the right direction,” Felsher said, “although government always moves slowly.”
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