The Greenville News

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) _ Paton Blough has first-hand experience with mental health court.

After he landed in jail during a bipolar episode, he went through the program, which channels mentally ill offenders into treatment instead of the criminal justice system.

Now the 38-year-old Greenville man has vowed to climb Table Rock every day until a bill that establishes a statewide mental health court program is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor.

“If I hadn’t gone to mental health court,” he told The Greenville News, “I could be a prisoner today _ or dead.”

The bill, S.426, passed the Senate by a vote of 40-0 last month. It was sent to the House on March 31.

Blough said his climb each morning is symbolic of the struggle that people with mental illness face. But it’s worth the effort, he said, because it will save lives.

Mental health court intervenes so that people with a brain illness are rehabilitated instead of punished, he said.

“If somebody had a seizure and killed somebody because they passed out in a car, we don’t think they should be put in prison, but given help,” he said. “If someone is put in prison for two, three or five years, they are more screwed up when they come out.”

Judge Debora Faulkner of Greenville County Probate Court said mental health court is successful because it costs far less than imprisoning someone and it turns their lives around. Since it began, it has accepted 84 participants, she said, and 55 have graduated. There are now eight active participants.

“It’s a way to not only be prudent with tax dollars, but to get people the help that they need and out of that revolving door,” she said. “Those individuals are no longer in the criminal justice system. They are productive members of society.”

Mental health courts operate in Greenville, Charleston and Columbia. Greenville’s began with a grant in 2005, Faulkner said. But for years it’s been operating without any funding because officials believe so much in it.

Probate pays the judge’s time, she said, and other services are provided by Greenville Mental Health and Piedmont Mental Health employees.

“It’s a wonderful program. It’s a savings for the taxpayer, it keeps the jail population down, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to see the results,” she said. “They’re all trying so hard. I saw someone have their very first paycheck. And another graduate who has gone on and gotten a master’s in social work.”

Under the system, the solicitor selects the participants, who must meet certain criteria, like being charged with nonviolent offenses such as public disorderly or property crimes and have no past convictions for violent crimes, Faulkner said.

They must attend mental health court weekly along with seeing a case manager and medical professionals, she said. They are also subject to random drug testing and can be terminated if they are rearrested or otherwise violate terms of the program.

And they’re linked to community resources so they can find other help they might need, like employment and housing, she said. Once they graduate, the charges are dropped.

A native of Alaska who attended Bob Jones University, Blough worked as an arborist when he had his first bipolar episode in 2002. He saw a doctor, got on medication and did well for a couple of years, he said.

But then his world began to unravel as he became increasingly ill, he said, and he wound up losing his business, his marriage and was living in his car thinking about suicide.

In 2006 after he was arrested on nonviolent charges, Blough went through mental health court. Though he dealt with a couple of issues since then, he said, he credits the experience with helping him come to grips with his illness.

He got support from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the right medication and therapy, he said. And for the past five years, he’s been an advocate for people with mental illness.

The daily climb up Table Rock and back, which he said takes roughly three hours, is the latest effort in that advocacy.

Blough starts out early in the morning on the trek, which begins with a gentle slope along a creek flanked by large mossy rocks before becoming more rugged and elevated in some sections.

“Parts of it are pretty easy,” said the stay-at-home father of six, “though it’s steep in some places and 2,000 vertical feel and a little over 3 miles.”

Sometimes he’s joined by supporters or his children. He believes he can continue until the bill becomes law.

“I recognize I can’t keep it up for a year or whatever,” he said. “But I think I can keep going.”

The bill doesn’t mandate the courts, but it creates a statewide program with the provision that solicitors who take state dollars for such courts must create them within six months. While it doesn’t include any funding, its sponsor Sen. Vincent Sheheen has said he hopes that money will be found in the budget at some point to help.

Blough says that although it comes with no funds, he considers it a leadership bill.

“I can’t say there will be a mental health court in every circuit in the next 12 months, but I think this is significant,” he said. “If it works, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be expanding it in our state.”