(Yvonne Bertovich/WUFT News)
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Florida Mental Health And Substance Abuse Program Grant Renewed

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Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, the primary provider of services for the Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant Program has been awarded $1.5 million from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The grant was approaching the end of a three-year stint in Alachua County, and the funds will go toward furthering services into Bradford County as well, according to a press release provided by Meridian.

The press release quotes Leah Vail, the Meridian Forensic Program Director, as saying: “This grant allows us to continue and expand efforts toward our longstanding vision of a community that no longer needs jails and court to serve as a provider of mental health and addictions treatment.”

The program, aimed at increasing public safety, averting spending, and improving the lives of and treating the incarcerated, has completed three three-year cycles in the past decade, according to a summary provided by Stuart Wegener, diversion resource coordinator for Alachua County court services.

“I feel that Alachua County is really a great county to do this type of work in because of the partnerships that we have with our stakeholders,” Vail said. “We’re one of the few counties where everyone really gets along.”

Participants, who are mostly felons with either mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or both, are involved with group therapy sessions at the Meridian facility as well as personalized case management. In-home support is also provided for those who need it.

The program has roughly 200 participants at any given time and is able to provide more intimate treatment and post-program services to inject patients back into the real world successfully, something that state hospitals cannot always offer.

“We have a wide variety of participants,” Vail said. “We may have a person with chronic schizophrenia that gets out [of] jail and runs the risk of going into a state hospital. They will probably be in our program a lot longer. You can’t always measure success on time frames.”

Vail, who works with data analysis at Meridian, believes that the statistics that show how many participants receive housing, get jobs and other types of benefits after the program, are really what are important versus how long it takes them to get there.

“You can’t really compare certain people,” Vail said. “They’re individuals. You may have someone that has other types of challenges or you may have someone that can get back out onto their feet again very quickly.”

Wegener also provided a summary of the program’s findings in an email exchange. The program has maintained its initial success in 2014, with about a “68 percent reduction in charges, a 40 percent reduction in incarcerations and a 58 percent reduction in jail days, based on pre- and post-program evaluations.”

Also according to data provided by Wegener, the program has “between $467,296 in averted jail stay costs for regular participants versus $993,000 for psychiatric inmates.”

“For the last three months of the current grant we will really continue what we’ve been doing,” Michelle Hart-Wilhour, Alachua County Police Bureau Chief said. “Jail diversion specialists are already seeking out and interviewing potential participants for the program.”

The specialists visit both the Meridian facility as well as GRACE Marketplace for screening five days a week.

About Yvonne Bertovich

Yvonne Bertovich is a junior studying journalism at the University of Florida. She is currently the office manager for the Florida Scholastic Press Association, an editorial intern for Atlantic Publishing, and a WUFT News digital reporter/editor.

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