Sunday, June 7, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Like thousands of Las Vegas students, 25-year-old Kara VanderEyk could hardly wait for graduation day. Both her parents flew in from Michigan because they understood their daughter’s struggle to get to the wooden podium.
VanderEyk proved on graduation day that she was a survivor, a quiet warrior who earned her day in court.
It was there, in the 8th Judicial District Court in downtown Las Vegas, where she graduated from mental health court, a growing nationwide program for mentally ill people often charged with repeated crimes.
Here’s the short version of how she got the court’s attention: “I wanted to see Las Vegas. I was 18 when I came out here. My grandma died, I spiraled into a deep depression, I got hooked on meth, I ended up homeless, on the streets, I wouldn’t talk to anyone, I was scared.”
With her addiction and Las Vegas’ warm weather, VanderEyk slept behind Dumpsters and restaurants, in alleys. In 2013, she was arrested on suspicion of lewd and gross misconduct, and, unable to post bail, she spent 65 days in jail.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality and depression, she was offered a plea deal: instead of more jail time, she could plead guilty and check into Clark County’s Mental Health Court — a misnomer because it is much more. It is a free, voluntary outpatient day program with psychiatrists, detox programs and therapists.
It also comes with housing.
She was dubious but took the deal.
“I figured I’d try it for three months,” VanderEyk said. “If I didn’t like it, I’d leave.”
She stuck with the program.
• • •
As in other specialty courts, the goal of mental health court is to help those who’ve committed nonviolent crimes stay out of crowded jails and prisons and get well.
“Jail is the most expensive bed in the community,” said Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, a proponent of mental health court.
“In the past you were found guilty or not guilty for your actions, liable or not liable for problems committed on a semi-regular basis. They weren’t necessarily serious problems, but we began to think about how to prevent people from becoming permanent repeat offenders,” he said.
Participants must have a severe psychiatric medical diagnosis and plead guilty. In lieu of incarceration, they commit to a highly structured, yearlong program. Some are given community service, put on probation or given a reduced sentence. All must regularly visit a psychiatrist and follow the professional’s recommendations.
• • •
Sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Reno, 62-year-old Mark Burchell explained how he went from working as a corrections officer in a California prison to being on suicide watch while confined in a Nevada jail.
“When I worked as a correctional officer I was living the American dream,” he said. “I rode motorcycles in my free time. I drove a Lincoln Continental. I was married. My wife was a police officer. ” As Burchell puts it, the money was good and life was great.
But in time he became delusional, thinking he was a military general destined to save the United States from foreign powers. He started ordering his superiors around. At 38, he was fired and taken to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.
Two months later he was dealing with a growing alcohol problem and sleeping in strangers’ unlocked cars, in bus stations or on the street.
Finally in 2004, during court appearances while he was spending four months in jail, his psychotic mental state caught a judge’s attention and Burchell joined the mental health court program, hoping for help.
• • •
Across 44 states there are 367 mental health courts.
Nevada has three (along with 41 courts working with drunken drivers, addicts and veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder).
Some DUI court programs require participants to pay several thousand dollars. Mental health court programs are free.
Services include medication management, group-therapy individual counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous groups, case management, drug testing, housing and food stamps.
At any given time there are about 250 mental health court participants in Nevada, said Sharon Dollarhide, a licensed clinical social worker and a state coordinator for the mental health court program.
In Las Vegas there are 69 participants, including VanderEyk. Sixty-four receive money for housing, food and transportation in addition to medical and therapeutic services.
The cost per person per month ranges from $1,250-$2,575. By comparison, the average monthly cost of caring for an inmate at the Clark County Detention Center runs upwards of $4,000.
Over a year’s time participants learn mental health and life-coping skills while attending up to 20 group-therapy sessions a week. They are prescribed psychiatric medication, get clean and sober, and ultimately try to get jobs and a normal life back.
Attendance at all activities is closely monitored. Dropping out before a sentence is finished, testing positive for drugs or missing meetings can send participants to jail.
It’s a grueling regimen; only 60 percent make it to graduation day. The rest stop showing up, are kicked out for violations or decide they’d rather serve time.
For VanderEyk, a medication problem last summer almost sent her back to the streets.
“I can’t describe how depressed I was,” she said. “No matter what medication I took, nothing seemed to work. I started thinking more and more about going back to the streets and using (drugs) again.”
Fortunately for her, her mental health court training kicked in. She checked herself into the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital and life got better.
• • •
For all the social service programs in which Nevada lags, it is one of five national models for mental health courts.
That’s due largely to Peter Breen, a longtime Washoe County judge who in 2001 founded the state’s first mental health court, in Reno. Clark County followed in 2003.
Breen fields phone calls from judges across the country. Some come to Reno to observe a crucial part of the program — the required weekly court appearances during which participants recount their ups and downs to a judge trained in mental illness issues.
“Participants see that mental health court has a big payoff,” Breen said. “The good that we do is needed and obvious. People are grateful that we change the lives of Nevada’s most vulnerable. For many, their time in mental health court is the best they’ve been in their lives. We’re glad to see that they are truly rehabilitated.”
A big draw for many participants, apart from getting mentally stable or avoiding jail time, is that when they complete the program their court records may be sealed or the charges dismissed.
But while this may sound to outsiders like a get-out-of-jail-free card, to participants, many who have struggled with their mental health for years and lived on the streets, it’s a demanding year of full-time rehab that nearly 40 percent simply can’t handle.
• • •
Many mental health advocates say the courts program is fine for addressing problems that have landed people in jail but argue that more resources should be dedicated on the front end, helping the mentally debilitated before they begin a downward criminal spiral.
Every Friday morning, dozens of mental health court defendants wait their turn in a crowded courtroom to eagerly explain how life is going.
Some have good news: they are three weeks drug-free or have a job interview. Some recite poetry they’ve written and even rap songs they’ve penned.
Many who have earned tokens from AA for their sobriety proudly show them off.
“How are we doing today; how’s that job hunt looking?” Senior Judge Archie Blake politely asked one.
“Well, I put an application in to Wal-Mart,” came the reply.
“Great! Don’t let success spoil you. As long as you’re good, we’re good. We’re here for you.”
Few studies have been conducted on the success of metal health courts in reducing recidivism, in part because the strategy is relatively new.
The Urban Institute in 2012 found that mental health court participants in New York were significantly less likely to return to criminal habits than similar offenders with mental illness who did not go through the specialty court system.
Justice Douglas said that for Nevada, the bottom line is economics.
“You’d think it’s a no-brainer, but not everyone gets it. States are slowly realizing that it’s cheaper to treat someone than it is to incarcerate them.”
The state’s funding of the speciality courts was increased by the 2015 Legislature to $13 million a year, from $10 million, to expand services to another 800 or more people.
A year in the Washoe County mental health court program changed Burchell’s life. Medication rid him of his psychotic episodes, weekly AA meetings helped him get sober and a volunteer gig in 2005 at a state mental health complex turned into a state job as a peer mentor for mental health court participants. When clients despair or feel like dropping out, the once-homeless Burchell goes to the rescue.
He attributes the graduation numbers to the high prevalence of drug and alcohol addictions that many can’t break.
“It’s such an intense program, some clients will run (from mental health court) and stay on the run until they’re caught. Many want the freedom to use and abuse (drugs); that’s usually what gets them in trouble.”
So part of Burchell’s week as a mentor is spent leading dual diagnosis groups to help prevent addiction relapse.
VanderEyk isn’t sure what she’s going to do now that she has graduated. Now two years drug-free, she’s thinking about a part-time job or volunteering at a women’s homeless shelter.
Despite taking medications these days, she said, voices in her head come back to haunt her on occasion.
“It’s hard,” she said. “Every day I battle depression.”
Still, she remains hopeful. And excited after her hard-earned graduation.
“The public doesn’t understand,” VanderEyk said. “They think of mental health court as a place for crazy people. But just give us a chance; we can succeed.”