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Town hall addresses mental health

Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, makes an address at a town hall meeting conducted in Albany on Friday. The meeting was one of five held throughout the state so far as a means to reach out to all the agency's service areas to foster local engagement in the transformation of Georgia's behavioral health system. (Nov. 30, 2012)

Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, makes an address at a town hall meeting conducted in Albany on Friday. The meeting was one of five held throughout the state so far as a means to reach out to all the agency's service areas to foster local engagement in the transformation of Georgia's behavioral health system. (Nov. 30, 2012)

ALBANY, Ga. -- The Carter Center, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), and other state agencies and partners recently invited the public to participate in a town hall meeting in Albany to discuss the Carter Center's recommendations for improving community behavioral health services for children, adolescents and adults in the state.

The meeting took place Friday afternoon at the Thronateeska Heritage Center and included officials such as Frank Berry, commissioner of the DBHDD, and Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center Mental Health Program.

The preliminary recommendations coming are a culmination of the Carter Center Mental Health Program's work since 2008 in mobilizing the statewide mental health community and other stakeholder groups to help identify solutions to the crisis in Georgia's psychiatric hospitals, officials say.

In October 2010, the center and its partners helped the state and community stakeholders reach a settlement that included the creation of an improved community behavioral health system as well as other major changes that officials say were needed for a healthier Georgia.

As part of the settlement, the state has been expected to move more people from its hospitals and into society -- but the motivation to integrate mental health patients who are ready to be out of a hospital and into the outside world goes deeper than that, officials say.

"We move people out not only because we have to, but because it's the right thing to do," Berry said during his remarks. "There are things you can do in the community at the same level or better than in a state hospital.

"Across the board, people will do better living in their own communities, in their own homes."

As part of this, Berry said, the key will be to develop a stronger relationship between the state department and its providers as well as build up resources at the regional level rather than at the state level.

"There is a strong commitment in building up regional rather than state resources," he said. "We will downsize at the state (and give those resources) to the regions."

The Carter Center's most recent report of the system and the steps outlined to move it forward -- available on the center's website, www.cartercenter.org -- provides recommendations for areas not addressed by the settlement, such as children's mental health services.

Portions of the report we presented by Bornemann at Friday's town hall meeting.

In addition, there were examples given of practices in place in the area designed to help those dealing with mental illness. One of the presenters was Dougherty Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss, who was there to give an overview of Dougherty's mental health court program.

The program allows for an offender to be referred to therapy and other treatment either prior to sentencing or as a part of the sentence. Successful participation in treatment could allow a case to be dismissed against someone, or allow a sentence to be modified or reduced.

"The programs do help in these cases and get better outcomes," Goss said.

Goss said that part of the motivation for setting something like this up in Dougherty was the observation that the same faces were being seen in the courtroom over and over again. A few years ago, the system at Dougherty became a national learning site -- and has since reportedly attracted teams from throughout Georgia and other states to visit and observe the program, the judge said.

The Albany town hall event was the fifth regional meeting held since 2011 as part of an effort to reach every DBHDD service region in the state to foster local engagement in the transformation of Georgia's behavioral health system. The Southwest Georgia area is known as DBHDD Region 4, which comprises of 24 counties.

The sixth and final town hall will be held in Augusta on Dec. 18.