State of Mind: Treating mental illness inside the Marathon County Jail

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- If you read the headlines on any given day across the country, you'll find evidence of a growing crisis within the criminal justice system -- suicide.
In the most recent data, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the jail suicide rate was 50 for every 100,000 inmates, remaining the leading cause of death in jails.

Mental health experts say one factor that leads to suicide is mental illness, which is its own growing crisis nationwide. Ninety percent of children and adolescents who die by suicide live with a mental health condition, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Knowing those statistics, staff at the Marathon County Jail are taking every step they can to make sure the mental illness is treated the same inside jail walls, as it would be on the outside. That begins during the intake process, with a series of questions.

"Are you on any type of medications and that includes mental health medications. We also determine if they've ever had any type of treatment before , if they have ever been or are currently suicidal," explained Sandra La Du-Ives, Marathon County Jail Administrator.

The number of people who answer yes to mental health treatment is staggering.

"We have probably 80% of our population suffers from some type of either mental illness or co-occurring disorder where they're looking at the after-effects of use of drugs or alcohol that has kind of driven some anxiety or things like that," La Du-Ives added.

Monitoring anyone at risk for self-harm is part of the policy.

La Du-Ives showed the cells that someone would go in if he or she was at risk or on suicide watch. The outside is mostly glass, and the inside is also monitored with a security camera.

A restraint chair is meant to secure inmates' arms and legs to eliminate self-harm.

"It's people who are banging their heads, or who are using their fingernails or their teeth to bite themselves.That's where we really see the use of it.," said La Du-Ives. "[It's used] more often than you'd think."

A smock is also put on anyone who is attempting to hang themselves.

"Family members and community members don't necessarily understand all of the things that we're going through in order to provide aid to people, who sometimes don't want it," La Du-Ives added.

But it's not just a watchful eye and physical intervention for those living with a mental illness. There is a psychiatrist who works four hours a week via telemedicine.

The jail also partners with North Central Health Care to meet any other needs.

"Our mental health professional is actually their employee, but she's stationed here in the jail, and she will receive a referral oftentimes from the person who's done the booking, sometimes from the person themselves, so the inmate themselves will make a request, so we have that person placed on a list to see her," La Du-Ives said.

"North Central Heath Care prioritizes referrals from the criminal justice system," said Janelle Hintz, the director of outpatient services and community treatment at North Central Health Care.

That support includes anything from individual or group counseling, to help in mental health crisis scenarios, to referrals to psychiatry for medication.

"It is not uncommon for our mental health person to see a half dozen to a dozen per day, depending on the level of care they need, and sometimes it's even more," said La Du-Ives.

"When individuals are in the jail, North Central Health Care's role is to focus on the immediate mental health needs," Hintz added. "But we also work with the jail social worker to receive referrals or criminal justice partners so that we are connecting individuals with resources to support them with reintegration into the community with the goal that we can support them and keep them out of the jail system in the future."