New Albany: Processing the Mentally Ill

Tessa Hester, Union County Sheriff's Office.

Tessa Hester, Union County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 61. 5 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year and about 13.6 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

There are many state institutions, in Mississippi, that house and help people with mental illnesses such as the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo, South Mississippi State Hospital in Purvis, East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian, the Specialized Treatment Facility in Gulfport and Central Mississippi Residential Center in Newton.

The Union County Sheriff’s Department along with the D.A.R.E officer of New Albany, Mississippi, Tressa Hester, has had their fair share of encounters with people who have a mental illness.

“It’s not something you want to see happen, but it does, and it’s my job to try and help those people,” Hester said.

Hester has been in the Union County Sheriff’s Department for 15 years. Hester helps provide transportation for the patients to and from their doctor’s appointments. Anything beyond that is handled, locally, by the North Mississippi Behavioral Heath Center in Tupelo. She takes pride in helping those in need.

“I want to help these people because, as you can imagine, mental illness is a hard thing to deal with, and I like the way we’ve changed how we have to deal with certain types of situations. It’s easier on us and more helpful for them,” said Hester.

The method used by the Union County Sheriff’s Department was previously set up in a way that if a citizen took out a court order to help a family member that had a history of mental illness, the Sheriff’s Department would pick them up and house them in a cell. Eventually the Sheriff’s Department would call North Mississippi Medical Behavioral Health Center located in Tupelo, MS, an appointment would be scheduled with a doctor, and then the person would wait until a bed became vacant in order for him/her to get the treatment they needed. Now the department has a different method that is easier on the Sheriff’s Department and more helpful to the patients.

“The way we do it now is we’ll get a call, normally it will be a court order from the judge, and we’ll pick up the person and take them straight to Tupelo. It’s much better on them because we don’t want them to think they’ve done something wrong to be sitting in a jail cell. We want them to get the help they need as [soon] as possible,” said Hester.

This new method saves time and money especially because it can be expensive to house these patients in a jail cell. If an appointment is scheduled and a bed is not available, the patient will have to be transported to another facility in another county.

In order to hold a mental ill patient in the Union County Jail, the system has to be up to a certain code.

“Unfortunately, our jail does not meet those codes, but if we had the funds it would be a nice investment to the system,” said Hester. “I like the way the system is set up, and when I see someone who comes to me and says I helped them it makes me feel good; I did my job,” she said.

Fortunately, Tupelo’s facility meets those codes, and in order to get the proper treatment, one has to go through the Chancery Court to take out papers to get the help he/she needs.

“Usually when it’s a referral, the patient goes to the emergency room, they will go to the behavioral center. The patient will automatically be medically cleared if they go through the emergency room,” said Anne Black of the North Mississippi Behavioral Health Facility.

If a person goes through the behavioral center, the patient has to meet certain criteria and if that person does not meet the criteria, they can go to an outpatient facility. There are also intensive outpatient programs that meet up to four times a week that the patient can attend. They will do group management for treatments.

In addition to those treatments, there are personal counseling sessions with qualified counselors, twenty-four hour crisis lines for emergencies for after hour problems and referrals to the appropriate facilities if necessary.

“We are an open facility, and we do what we can to help the patients in need,” said Black.

Although mental illness is a much talked about issue, the real issue is whether these patients are getting the help they deserve. Even though the Union County Sheriff’s Department does not house the mentally ill in their facilities as they did two years ago, they still try to be helpful to these patients with the help of the Tupelo North Mississippi Medical Center as well as other facilities in the state of Mississippi.

Kristin Waldrop is a journalism student at Ole Miss, and can be reached at