New Jersey prosecutor puts the spotlight on mental illness

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — In 2003, Bernard A. King suffocated to death while face down and shackled to a bed post at the Gloucester County jail.

Earlier that night, the Lindenwold man had rung his stepmother's doorbell in Monroe Township, violating a temporary restraining order she had sought because he had ransacked her house a couple weeks earlier. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the man had been hospitalized for his manic episode.

So when King showed up at her front door that April night, she ran out the back to her son's house next door. Police stopped King's vehicle and arrested him a short time later.

What happened next led the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office to create a mental health committee that same year to study ways to improve law enforcement's response to people with mental illness. The group meets monthly and has since instituted programs to train police, steer people toward professional help, and assist mentally ill inmates as they transition back into the community.

Now, the committee has organized its first mental health and addiction resource fair for the public. It will be held in the Student Center at Rowan University on May 19. About 30 service agencies will have representatives available to share information and answer questions.

"We want to raise awareness in the community and offer assistance to individuals, so they can get treatment and hopefully break the cycle of addiction, as well as address any mental health issues," Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton told the Courier-Post ( ).

More than 20 percent of the people the police encounter suffer mental illness, Dalton estimated.

Often, their unstable behavior leads to entanglements with the justice system. About 2 million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails annually, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"We've tried to encourage police to ... not arrest somebody if they believe their behavior is primarily motivated by untreated mental health issues that would benefit from treatment," Dalton said.

That's not always easy.

According to court documents, when King was arrested and interviewed, police said he acted and appeared normal. Though family members said he should have been on medication for his disorder, he said he didn't need it and refused medical attention. According to a complaint filed by his parents, he later began acting strangely and was beaten by corrections officers and dragged into a holding cell, where he died before dawn from positional suffocation.

A grand jury declined to press charges against the officers, and a U.S. appellate court eventually dismissed the civil suit brought by his parents.

A dozen years later, Dalton believes the criminal justice system needs to make mental illness training a higher priority.

One problem has been a lack of treatment in the community. Indeed, a 2013 tri-county health assessment conducted for five health systems in South Jersey found that people with mental health issues here are underserved, though a significant number reported poor mental health and problems with depression and anxiety.

Leslie Taylor, a victim witness advocate for the prosecutor's office and a key organizer for Tuesday's event, said many crimes are related to substance abuse and undiagnosed mental illness.

The resource fair is designed to connect service agencies with the public, she said.

"Everyone is always saying they don't know where to start, they don't know where to go," Taylor said. "This is one place they can go where the majority of providers ... are all in one place."

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now works as a substance abuse counselor in Hudson County, will be the keynote speaker at the free event.

Maura Schwartz of Deptford will speak, too. The daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School psychologist, Mary Sherlach, Schwartz recently launched the New Jersey chapter of Mary's Fund. The original fund started in Connecticut, shortly after Sherlach died in a 2012 mass shooting by a mentally ill man. It has since raised more than $500,000 to support school counseling services for students in nearby Stamford, Connecticut.

In South Jersey, the local chapter will support mental health charities and high school scholarships. Schwartz and her husband, Eric, want a substantial portion to benefit the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey. One program teaches educators how to spot mental health problems early, and how to properly address and report them.

"It's a really good way to do not only what my mom would have done, but also maybe prevent another shooting like what happened to my mom," Schwartz said.

When the prosecutor's office invited her to speak at the resource fair, Schwartz said her immediate reaction was, "Of course." Mental wellness was her mother's passion. Taking up the cause has been healing for the high school music teacher.

"The more we talk about people dealing with mental and emotional issues, the less you stigmatize it," Schwartz said. She hopes people will attend the fair, so they or their friends and loved ones get the help they need.

"It's much easier to get the help now, than letting it simmer and explode later on down the line."


Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.),

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