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Mental health court celebrates milestones
Graduation from program marked in Hall County
Stephanie Bailey, a therapist with Avita Community Partners, listens as people she has helped through the Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities program graduate Thursday. - photo by Tom Reed

It took Mike 20 years of up and down struggles with a bipolar condition before he was able to get a handle on his mental illness. And a trip to jail was the first step in his journey of recovery.

The 45-year-old Gainesville man spent three months in jail and another month in work release after his 2007 arrest on criminal damage charges for ripping out cabinets in his apartment in what he intended as a remodeling project. On the day police came knocking at his door over a noise complaint, he had consumed his daily 12-pack of beer, and the encounter ended with him in handcuffs.

Sheriff’s deputies at the Hall County jail later recognized that Mike, whose last name is being withheld by The Times at the request of court officials, was a good candidate for Hall County HELP Court.

HELP, which stands for Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities, is an accountability court for criminal defendants who have run afoul of the law partly due to mental health issues.

On Thursday, Mike stood with Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin in a crowded courtroom for a ceremony marking his graduation from the intensive, treatment-based program. His parents flew in from New York for the occasion.

“In 20 years I never accepted my mental illness,” he said after the ceremony, held for four recent HELP Court graduates. “I never did. But they were persistent in convincing me that I was mentally ill, and that it’s OK, and my life is not limited because of it.”

Prior to the arrest, Mike had not gone more than six months without going off his medication for schizoaffective disorder and lapsing into problem behavior. In the two-plus year he was in HELP court, he never relapsed once. By the end of the program, he was certified as a peer counselor helping others with mental illnesses.

“Now that I’m living a life in recovery, I don’t think I will relapse,” he said.

Under the HELP court model, a judge orders appropriate treatment and counseling for participants, who must hold up their end of the deal or face sanctions that can include jail time. The treatment team meets weekly with the judge to go over each participant’s progress and they must appear in court regularly for status updates.

One of Thursday’s graduates, the mother of five children, faced more sanctions than any other person in the program since her enrollment in 2006, but emerged a changed person, Gosselin said.

“She’s come the furthest of anyone I’ve seen,” the judge said.

Stephanie Bailey, a therapist with Avita Community Partners, told her, “I’ve been impressed with your courage.”

Since HELP court was started in Hall County in late 2004 with a Georgia Department of Corrections grant, 190 people have enrolled and 48 people have graduated. Currently 48 people remain in the program.

Mike’s father was too emotional to speak to the audience during his son’s graduation, but afterward attested to the program’s effectiveness.

“In 20 years of hospitals and different programs, this is the only one I’ve seen that worked and got him stabilized,” he said.

“Unfortunately he had to wind up in jail to get in the program, but that’s the way is. We are very, very thankful.”

Mike said his recovery was due in no small part to the judge and the team of case managers, attorneys, counselors and court officials who convinced him that he had to take his medication every day.

“They are really outstanding in what they do,” he said.

Added his mother, “they are very caring.”