In March, two inmates at the local jail committed suicide within two weeks of each other. The deaths spawned redoubled attention from Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher to up the facility’s mental health services.

Last week, a fulltime mental health professional, whose presence was prompted by back-to-back suicides at the jail earlier this year, started at the jail. The employee, said Asher, may not be able to prevent every suicide attempt at the jail but may be able to head-off such occurrences in the future.

“We saw a need for a fulltime person … The largest mental health facility, generally, in any county is a county jail,” said Asher. “We have the highest population of people with mental health disabilities that we think we need to step up and try to help with those things.”

A mental health provider working out of the jail isn’t entirely new for the county. A part-time mental health professional has provided services there for some time, according to Asher, but with an increased population the sheriff felt a need for a full-time position to complement the part-time role.

With a mental health professional at the jail fulltime, Asher said the goal now is to integrate their services into the book-in process.

When a person is incarcerated they are screened by a nurse who checks inmates physically during the book-in process. But now, incoming inmates also will be given mental health screenings.

“So what we want to do is also transition into not only having our nursing staff checking them out physically, but we also like to have our mental health person check those people out to see what are their mental health needs,” said Asher. “What do we need to do with them? What kind of restrictions? Any kind of situation we can help with, that’s what that mental health person will do.”

While exact hours this person will be at the jail are to be determined and adjusted, given the fact that inmates are processed at all hours of the day, Asher said the provider will be there 40 hours a week. The part-time individual will remain as well, and one of the mental health providers will be able to respond to the jail at times of need 24-hours a day.

Some responsibility still will fall on jail staff to monitor inmates for signs of trouble.

In instances where inmates seem to be exhibiting warning signs, such as showing signs of difficulty around the holidays or receiving divorce papers, the sheriff said jail staff then could notify the mental health provider so they can intervene. But, Asher warned, not every suicide is preventable.

“If somebody wants to hurt themselves, it would be very difficult to absolutely 100-percent guarantee someone isn’t going to hurt themselves,” said Asher. “I don’t think there’s any way that I know of that we could stop those kinds of instances. What we could do with this mental health therapist is try to identify some of those folks that are in there … If we can catch that person before they harm themselves, we’re going to do our best.”

Aside from preventing suicides at the jail, another goal is to help provide services to inmates that may cut down on recidivism.

“We want to help these folks as much as possible,” said Asher. “We’ve got quite a few folks in jail. We’d love to get those numbers down and try to stop any kind of recidivism. So if it is a mental health situation, we could get somebody some help. Maybe we can identify something and get them some help, and hopefully they won’t come back to the facility. That would be the endgame on any of those things. I’m excited about getting the process started. I think it will do some good, and I think it will be good for the community.”

During budget hearings with the Howard County Council, Asher requested an additional annual sum of $75,000 to help fund the full-time mental health services provider past this year. The council will vote to adopt the 2020 budget on Sept. 24.