Why two Forsyth County leaders pushed to pass the mental health bill in Georgia

Justine Lookenott

Executive director of NAMI Mary Giliberti at a conference discussing the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015(Image by Getty Images)

(Forsyth County, GA) May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also the month Governor Brian Kemp signed the “Mental Health Parity Act,” in order to expand mental health care access to Georgians.

A topic that has dominated headlines in recent years, mental health care access has historically not been a priority for Georgia lawmakers. Mental Health America has Georgia ranked as 48th in the country in terms of accessibility to mental health care.

In the past, some elected officials made attempts at improving the system but found little success. However, the tide began to turn around 2019 when Kemp launched the Georgia Mental Health Reform and Innovation Commission to study the state of mental health in Georgia and provide solutions. Forsyth County Manager Kevin Tanner, who is a former member of the Georgia House, was the co-chair of the Commission.

The Commission ultimately helped pass H.B. 1013, or the “Mental Health Parity Act” to sail through the State General Assembly, where it was passed unanimously.

State Representative Todd Jones (25th District) is another local who helped pass the legislation by sponsoring it.

Both Forsyth County leaders were invaluable to expanding mental health care access not only to their County, but for all of Georgia.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston speaks to press on March 30, 2022 after passing H.B. 1013(Image by Capitol Beat News Service)

What is your connection to fighting for mental health care?

Mental illness is something neither man is stranger to; both have seen what happens when mental health issues are ignored and not taken care of properly.

Tanner, who has years of experience in law enforcement, said the results of the Commission didn’t surprise him at all.

“And I will tell you why,” Tanner said. “My experience dealing with the mental health issue goes back 32 years. I spent 18 to 20 years in law enforcement, a number of those years driving the law enforcement agency and having gone out and had officers go out on mental health calls and seeing the lack of resources that were available. I knew that our system needed work.”

But it was after his career in law enforcement that he experienced what he said was “the straw that broke the camel's back.”

Being the owner of some rental properties, a friend reached out to him asking if he would be willing to rent out a place for her cousin who had schizophrenia. She said he was in Mental Health Court in Forsyth County, had a job and was doing very well.

“So I said, ‘Sure! I'll be glad to rent a house to Joe,” Tanner said. “For two and a half years, you could not have asked for a better candidate, [he] paid his rent three days early every month.”

Tanner found it odd when Joe missed a payment one month and wouldn’t answer his calls or answer the door. He called Joe’s sister (whom he had come to know through Joe) to ask about him, she melted into tears as she told him she had begged the Mental Health Court to not let him graduate from the program, because without accountability he would not take his medications. He was in a crisis and she could not get anyone to help him.

After doing his best to work with Joe, Tanner eventually had to evict him. Joe slept on his mattress in the front yard before setting it on fire and getting arrested. By the time he was gone, he had caused $30,000 in damages to the property.

About a year later, Tanner found out that Joe’s sister, who had not heard from him in a while, went searching for him at their childhood home. She found his skeletal remains still in his sleeping bag in the woods behind the house.

“That year when I found that out is when I introduced legislation to create the [Georgia Mental Health Reform and Innovation] Commission,” Tanner said. And I said, ‘I'm going to take this up as my issue and not take no for an answer and I'm going to find a way to get this done.’ We’ve got to improve this system. So for me, that's how I always tell myself, this is for Joe and all the other folks exactly like Joe out there who have been allowed to fall through the cracks in the system and whose family members have been crying out for help for far too long.”

Forsyth County Manager Kevin Tanner was the co-chair of the Georgia Mental Health Reform and Innovation Commission(Image by Forsyth County Government)

For Jones, mental illness hits even closer to home. He and his wife, Tracey, have been very open with their experience caring for their 25-year-old son, Justin. Outlined in an article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they discovered Justin had a substance abuse problem during his junior year of high school. The next year, as an honor roll student, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During his freshman year of college he jumped out of the car as his parents tried to take him to a treatment facility. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Since then, the Jones family experienced a whirlwind of insurance companies cutting corners any way they could, run-ins with law enforcement personnel unequipped to handle Justin’s state of mind and their son being discharged from mental health facilities before it was safe for Justin to be on his own.

Eventually, a health professional suggested coaxing Justin to commit a felony in order to be admitted to the prison system where he could receive long-term care.

“What I started to find was, there isn't even a ‘start here’ button,” Jones said. “What I mean by that is, you're a family member of someone with a mental illness, you think they have a mental issue or substance abuse issue, or God forbid, both, like my son, and there's no place to go out on the web, social media and say ‘I believe my (fill in the blank) has an issue. How can you help me?’ There’s nowhere.”

Among his other accomplishments in improving the health care system, Jones’ campaign website said he has helped pass legislation to cut prescription drug prices, ban surprise medical billing and reduce maternal and infant deaths in the state.

Why do you think mental illness is such a big problem?

When it comes to how the pandemic affected mental health, both agree that it was detrimental to nearly everyone in some form.

“It created isolation and a lot of cases for our young people,” Tanner said. “There's been a lot of stories and research coming out about that over the past few months. So it did have a negative effect on the mental health status and I think it really highlighted the need to do more work.”

Mental health statistics in Georgia compared to the national average statistics(Image by Recovery In Georgia)

Before 2020 brought a pandemic and mass shutdowns, Jones points to social media as one of the main culprits for the skyrocketing rates of mental illness and believes young people (especially girls) are more severely affected.

“I'll say the lack of socialization,” Jones said. “You see it constantly. And this isn't an old guy picking on the younger generations. That's not it at all. But you just don't see the socialization that you saw even 10 years ago, amongst children, amongst young adults, etc...”

Along with socialization issues, social media can cause constant unhealthy comparisons and an extreme fear of failure in young people.

“In the social media world, you put something out on Snapchat, you put something out on TikTok, one million people are judging you possibly,” Jones said. “And that's causing, at least according to the data, a significant amount of depression, a significant amount of self image issues. And ultimately people thinking, ‘Well, I have nowhere to go, there's nothing left for me to do.’ And then suicide becomes an option, which it shouldn't be.”

In a perfect world, what does mental health care access look like to you?

Perfection in mental health care access may not be an attainable goal, but Jones and Tanner have their thoughts on how to get closer to it.

For Tanner, intervention is an important first step.

“Well, in a perfect world, I think you have to be able to intervene,” Tanner said. “When someone's in a crisis or a situation like Joe you’ve got to be able to intervene. You've got to be able to get them into a crisis stabilization facility early. You’ve got to be able to get them to regulate their medication.”

He also said the stigma around mental illnesses, especially severe cases, has gone on for far too long.

“This stigma around mental health, people don't choose to become bipolar, people don't choose to become schizophrenic,” Tanner said. “And they're not getting it because they took a drug, this is no different than cancer or anything else, it just happens to be a brain disease.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston on March 2, 2022 after the House Committee approved H.B. 1013(Image by Capitol Beat News Service)

Jones also wants to see better overall care for patients, specifically, outpatient care to prevent the cycle of patients being released from mental health facilities too early and then having to be admitted again. He believes wraparound outpatient care is absolutely critical.

“Because today you go into an acute phase… and then put them into acute care,” Jones said. “That's code for ‘we drug you up so much that even Secretariat couldn't run around Belmont track.’ They then take you out of acute looking like a zombie from The Walking Dead then they step you down to a 30 day process. And then they literally say, the last day, ‘Here's five days of meds, take care!”

Making sure there is parity by requiring insurance companies to cover mental health care just as much as physical care is another goal, one that H.B. 1013 is already improving.

Medical Loss Ratio (MLR), or “Medical Spend Ratio” as he sometimes calls it, must also be improved. Jones said Georgia’s MLR falls last in the Southeast region.

Describing himself as a fiscal conservative, Jones wants to fix the state’s low MLR by making sure Medicaid officials spend at least 85 percent (but preferably higher) of their $11 billion in funds on patient care versus administration costs.

Lastly, he wants to make sure first responders are trained in dealing with people with mental illnesses and care for them accordingly to prevent them from the cycle of ending up in a jail cell instead of getting the treatment they need.

State Representative Todd Jones (25th District) sponsored H.B. 1013(Image by Georgia General Assembly Website)

Forsyth County looking forward

Forsyth County has already taken several steps to address mental health care access.

In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office created their Crisis Intervention Response Team (CIRT), which sends mental health professionals out on mental illness related 911 calls. Among many other benefits, the unit has significantly brought down the number of mental health patients from ending up in the Forsyth County Jail.

It is partially funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance's Justice and Mental Health Collaborative Program.

Probably the biggest move toward mental health care is the new 60,000 square foot “Whole Health Facility” that is in the works. Caring for both mental and physical health needs, the facility will have 30 crisis stabilization beds and a 24 hour mental health emergency room.

While Jones and Tanner have moved Forsyth County, and Georgia, forward in mental health care accessibility, they say this is the beginning.

“Georgia has literally systemically been at the bottom of the rankings,” Jones said. “And for a state that is number one in the country to do business, it's one of the best states to raise a family, you name it, for it to have such a, I'll say poor, outcome as it associates with mental health and substance abuse. I feel just from a state perspective, we have an obligation to be able to address that.”

If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Justine Lookenott at justine.lookenott@newsbreak.com.

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I cover local news in Forsyth County, GA. My debut into the writing world began at the age of 10 when I won an essay contest in Around Acworth Magazine in which I wrote about spending the summer with my pet goat, Eclair. Since graduating from Kennesaw State University, I have been published in several newspapers and magazines in the Atlanta area including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta School Guide, What Now Atlanta, Newcomer Magazine, the Marietta Daily Journal and the Cherokee Tribune.

Forsyth County, GA

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