Sergey Bogomaz, Janeal Walker and Mitchel Wayne Christensen: They are three Idaho prison inmates who committed suicide while incarcerated this year. In a state with one of highest suicide rates per capita coupled with a statewide mental-health system the Idaho Statesman described last month as “fragmented,” Idaho’s prison systems often become “de facto hospitals” despite being ill equipped to do so. So says Tewa Evans, a Wood River Valley mental-health advocate recently appointed to the National Alliance for Mental Health’s statewide board of directors. With her new position, she’ll add a new perspective to mental-health concerns and advocacy on a state level.
Evans, a Hailey resident, started the first NAMI chapter in the Wood River Valley when she moved from the Virgin Islands to the valley in 2001. She had started a NAMI branch on the island of St. Thomas in 1986.
“I was appalled when I found out the lack of services in our rural area,” she said, citing the number of valley residents with significant mental-health problems who were unable to find nearby help. “I thought, ‘OK, I need to start another NAMI group.’”
Idaho is 49th in the nation for mental-health services, Evans said.
NAMI is a nationwide organization “dedicated to support, education, advocacy and research on behalf of people living with mental illness and their families.”
“NAMI Idaho provides support for the local affiliates located across the state who directly deliver educational programs to the public, education about mental-health issues and concerns aimed at reducing the stigma about mental illnesses, and advocacy through work at the local and statewide level for policies that help people with a mental illness live full, productive lives,” a news release states.
Evans’ work hasn’t been confined to the valley—she served two terms on the Idaho Mental Health Council and has championed mental illness advocacy in Washington, D.C., according to the NAMI news release.
“She believes NAMI Idaho’s priorities should include advocating for emergency care centers statewide, bringing quality clubhouses to Idaho fashioned after the Fountain House in New York, involving corporations to fund the needs of the mentally ill in our communities and continuing to educate law enforcement and first responders on crisis intervention training,” the news release states.
The last training session in the valley took place two years ago, Evans said, and 15 responders voluntarily took the 40-hour course. Now there are only a handful of law enforcement officers still on a local squad who learned tactics for talking down a mentally ill person and other related skills.
NAMI-Wood River Valley is currently seeking donations to fund another training session for first responders in 2015—the organization needs $10,000 in total. Evans said the importance of understanding mental illness could mean the difference between life and death.
“Someone shot was here several years ago who had mental illness,” she said. “I’m sure that could’ve been deescalated had the responders known how to do that.”
Evans has and continues to petition Idaho legislators for increased programs and funding for the mentally ill community and their families.
“I’m sorry to say we’re still in a big crisis,” she said.
To accommodate mental-health needs within the state, Evans would like to see crisis centers set up across Idaho where people could “stay for 24 hours and get stable.”
“Sometimes that’s all it takes to get someone back on track,” she said, “and not being overstimulated in the community.”
Evans also hopes mental-health courts will increase in number throughout the state. These programs for non-violent, mentally ill people with substance abuse issues are different from typical courts in that defendants are required to attend regular group therapy and psychiatric sessions. The closest one to the valley is in Twin Falls, she said. There are 10 mental-health courts in the state.
“They get treatment instead of jail,” she said. “There is so much success, you probably never see those people back in the system.”