MAYS LANDING – The month of May is celebrated as National Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been recognized nationwide since 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives, and to celebrate recovery from mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking and/or behavior” and defines serious mental illness as “a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
An estimated one-in-five Americans are living with some form of mental illness. Due to stigma and lack of access to resources, many individuals do not receive needed services and treatment.
Mental illness not only influences criminal behavior but impacts interactions with police, the courts process, and the ability to successfully complete community supervision such as pretrial release, probation and parole.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office recognizes the challenge that mental illness presents across all communities and demographics, and specifically in the criminal justice context.
In recognition of this month and its ongoing obligation to address the link between mental health and public safety, ACPO is highlighting ongoing and upcoming initiatives, including:
- Establishing a Mental Health Working Group consisting of dozens of private, public, and non-profit representatives to ensuring there are adequate countywide protocols, programs and resources available to law enforcement to support those in mental health crises, those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and substance use disorders.
- In June 2022, ACPO joined a number of county stakeholders to address numerous lower-level offenders with patterns of repetitive criminality, chiefly impacting quality-of-life through burglaries, shoplifting, criminal mischief and more to provides defendants the opportunity for non-custodial sentences conditioned upon compliance with service provider recommendations, often involving mental health treatment. This initiative has since demonstrated a positive outcome with many of these defendants remaining law-abiding and embracing treatment, and casinos and businesses citing reduced criminality.
- ACPO will form a mental health court diversion pilot program this month. Diversion will be available to defendants whose diagnoses of significant mental health conditions are related to pending criminal charges.
- ACPO has joined with local agencies including Jewish Family Services, Volunteers for America, Hope One, local police, to reach out to those in need and offer multiple levels of housing support.
- ACPO has established a partnership with AtlantiCare Behavioral Health and Atlantic City Police Department to implement the Arrive Together Initiative in Atlantic City. This statewide grant-funded program pairs police, trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, with a certified mental health screener and crisis specialist, to respond together to 911 calls involving behavioral health incidents.
- ACPO established policy and training for de-escalation in all police and civilian interactions is a practice prioritized by Atlantic County law enforcement that produces safer and more just outcomes, especially for those with mental illness or developmental disabilities to make good, safe decisions.
- The Atlantic County Special Needs Registry is a law enforcement community-based program aimed at providing crucial information to first responders and law enforcement officers in Atlantic County about individuals with special needs, mental health issues, or developmental disabilities prior to and during interactions. Advance information can better prepare first responders and law enforcement officers, potentially reducing the risk of harm to the individual and improving the overall response. See acsnr.org to learn about participating in the Blue Envelope program.
- ACPO also provides powerful and insightful seminars on the dangers of impaired and distracted driving and other topics.
As the county’s leading law enforcement agency, ACPO is committed to a comprehensive approach to connect people with the help they need and will continue to pursue methods of addressing this issue while fulfilling its duty to protect the public at large.