National Alliance on Mental Illness
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NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer: A Resource for Mental Health Courts

By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager 

In Marion County, Fla., 31 percent of inmates in the county jail are on psychotropic medications. When NAMI Marion County learned of this huge need, they decided that they needed to do more to reach the people who languishing in jails. Diana Williams, president of NAMI Marion says, “The prison system really is the new psychiatric ward. When these people get out they are ill equipped to deal with so many things. If you’re healthy and educated, it’s still difficult.”

In an effort to provide education and support to people caught up in the justice system, NAMI Marion County worked together with the local mental health court to provide the NAMI Peer-to-Peer education program to diversion program participants. NAMI Peer-to-Peer is an education course taught by a team of two trained mentors and a volunteer support person who are personally experienced at living well with mental illness. The course is taught in two hour segments over 10 sessions.

The mental health court diversion program allows people to avoid jail time by participating in court-supervised services in the community. Participants followed a court-approved treatment plan and meet regularly with the judge to monitor progress. At the end of the program, criminal charges are usually dropped. Judges in Marion County and other communities in Florida may require participants in the court to attend NAMI Peer-to-Peer as part of their treatment plan.

According to Williams, the benefits for the mental health court participants extend beyond education on how to live with a mental illness. The course also offers a new social network and role models who can make a difference for the individual long term. The judge also directs participants to attend NAMI support groups, which provide ongoing support for recovery. Recidivism rates for mental health court participants have dropped and Williams says that peers involved in NAMI often “have a light go on” that changes their lives.

One of the keys to successfully include mental health court participants in NAMI Peer-to-Peer is integration within the community. Williams explains that there are not separate classes or support groups for those involved in the justice system – rather mental health court participants are taught along with members of the broader community. NAMI Marion County’s members have embraced this approach.

Mental Health Court Diversion Program

NAMI Marion County’s outreach to mental health court participants would not have been possible without a rising public awareness of NAMI. NAMI Marion County has focused on outreach, presenting before a variety civic and professional organizations the Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club and Bar Association. They also had a commitment to partnerships with the criminal justice system and local psychiatric hospital. In fact, by recruiting board members who represented community agencies, NAMI Marion County was able to talk directly to the mental health court judge.

Williams approached the mental health court judge about applying for a joint grant to offer Peer to Peer. She said it was important that the court see NAMI as a partner in the diversion program. A NAMI staff member serves on the staffing team for the program, which meets weekly to review applications for participation in the program and decide who to admit. This weekly meeting allows open communication between NAMI, the court staff, sheriff’s office and case managers.

Benefits to NAMI

According to Williams, the use of NAMI Peer-to-Peer in the mental health court diversion program is not just a benefit to individuals involved in the criminal justice system. It is also a boon to NAMI Marion County. The success of the program shows the community that NAMI is willing to reach out and help in difficult circumstances. Says, Williams, “When the organization is thriving, people want to donate and join. Our success makes us more credible with the broader community.”  

Visit NAMI’s Education, Training and Peer Support Center website to learn more about NAMI Peer-to-Peer. To learn more about NAMI Marion County’s criminal justice partnerships, email, attention: Diana Williams.