By Natalie Allison Janicello
Sitting in the middle of an east Burlington residential street one morning in June, the woman had nearly all of her possessions strewn around her on the pavement or stuffed into her pockets.
Among those possessions were kitchen knives, her “swords of the spirit,” she told Burlington Officer Dana Mitchell as he calmly took them from her.
She had set up for the morning in the middle of Dailey Street, where she was seeking help as she tried to get to the bottom of a government conspiracy against her.
Mitchell had dealt with her many times in his career, watching her struggle with substance abuse as she came in and out of jail for crimes like drug offenses and disorderly conduct.
Currently, she has pending charges in a nearby county for sleeping in a public place and possession of drug paraphernalia.
When the woman found out she was being taken — for the second week in a row — to Alamance Regional Medical Center’s emergency department to be assessed as part of an involuntary commitment order, she shouted most of the way there. She begged Mitchell to take her to jail instead.
In no healthy frame of mind, the woman hurled insults at nurses, at Mitchell and at the other officer working in the emergency department until she could be sedated.
Scenarios like these are what Alamance County says it’s trying to prevent: a cycle of people struggling with mental illness going in and out of the emergency room and the county jail because when law enforcement is called for a disturbance, those are usually the only options for where to take them.
Often the underlying mental health conditions go unaddressed or untreated, or the men and women suffering from mental illness don’t have a support system in place to ensure they’re taking their prescriptions or receiving psychological help.
It’s a gap a coalition of local government entities and private organizations are trying to fill with the development of Alamance Steps Up, a program based on the national Stepping Up initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill people in county jails. Around the United States, 300 counties have passed resolutions in favor of the Stepping Up initiative, 24 of which are in North Carolina.