Bert Nash team helps inmates with mental illness reenter the real world

Sharon Zehr, Bert Nash jail and homeless outreach team leader.

Sharon Zehr, Bert Nash jail and homeless outreach team leader. by Jeff Burkhead

When inmates with a history of mental illness are released from the Douglas County Jail, they don’t have to go back into the world without help.

Or without a plan.

The reentry program at the jail includes a staff person from the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center who works with inmates who have mental health issues before they are released, so they are better prepared to transition back into society.

“It’s basically like case management,” said Sharon Zehr, who oversees the Bert Nash team at the jail, as well as the Center’s homeless outreach and hospital discharge teams. “We work closely with the rest of the jail reentry team to make sure those inmates have a plan for when they are released, like where they are going to be living, and to provide mental health treatment as well as reentry services.”

Housing can be a challenge for inmates who have a history of homelessness. The reentry program has collaborated with the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority to provide a limited number of vouchers to assist reentry participants with subsidized housing. Affordable housing is key to success of the program, but more resources are needed.

Once an inmate has reentered the community, the reentry team will provide supportive assistance for up to six months, after which the inmate can be released to regular Bert Nash case management.

In addition, thanks to a grant, Bert Nash added two mental health clinicians to conduct initial assessments on people reporting mental health needs at booking, focusing on women, veterans and those with a trauma history. The goal of the program is to provide post-booking diversion treatment options as an alternative to being in jail.

A plan has been proposed to build a crisis center on the site of the former VFW building on Second Street, north of the Bert Nash Center. The proposed crisis intervention center would provide treatment options for those with mental illness. It is believed that early intervention of a mental health crisis will decrease the number of people eventually arrested for crimes related to mental health symptoms.

“The idea is to try to keep people treated in the community and having crisis services here,” Zehr said. “If someone is having a mental health crisis, they need to be someplace where they are not only being watched, but they are also receiving treatment. This proposal would provide crisis stabilization, where a person could stay up to seven or 14 days, depending on what the needs were. The hope is that a crisis center would be a place to outreach people to sooner, so they don’t end up at the state hospital or at the jail.”

As the Bert Nash liaison to Osawatomie State Hospital, Zehr regularly sees some of the same people coming through the jail. Because of shortages of beds at Osawatomie State Hospital, there are limited options of where to send people who are having a mental health crisis, and for how long. That’s where the Bert Nash discharge team comes in. They work with people who are transitioning from the state hospital back into the community.

“Because of the lack of bed space at the state hospital, people aren’t staying as long as they used to, and a lot of times when they come out they’re really not stable,” Zehr said. “They may not be a harm to themselves or others, but they still may be symptomatic. Part of the discharge team’s role is to make sure that mental health services are wrapped around those who are returning to the community, making sure they get their medications filled, making sure that continuum of care is still there, and getting them engaged with services.”

Ken Brouhard, 34, is an example of someone who has benefited from the reentry program. But it wasn’t easy. He has a long history of run-ins with the law and mental illness.

“Ever since I was growing up, I’ve had a lot of struggles in my life. I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for a long time,” said Brouhard, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Speaking recently as part of a consumer panel during crisis intervention training for members of the Lawrence Police Department, Brouhard talked about how the support he received through the reentry program, with help from Bert Nash, had put his life on a new course.

“I used to self-medicate and I would get more and more suicidal,” Brouhard said. “If it wasn’t for the reentry program and Bert Nash and learning how to cope with things and learning new skills, I probably wouldn’t be here. Especially this last year and a half, I’ve had a lot of people be there and be supportive, and then I actually learned I have to do it for myself.”

When his father died in December, Brouhard had to draw upon the skills he learned through therapy and Bert Nash.

“I would have thought that would have been the most damaging thing in my life to make me go crazy and do something stupid. I thought that would make me spiral down,” he said. “But I had made amends with my dad before he passed away and then I thought about how my father was so proud and all of these great people were there for me. That means a lot to me.”

After the consumer panel presentation, Brouhard went into the audience and shook hands with officers and thanked them for helping him.

“With reentry and Bert Nash and you guys being there for folks who have a mental health issue, I can hold my head up high,” Brouhard said. “Thank you, guys, for risking your lives. And thank you for going out there and saving our lives.”

Ken Brouhard has benefited from the reentry program.

Ken Brouhard has benefited from the reentry program. by Jeff Burkhead


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