In the recent past, I was in a meeting with some folks in the community. At first, I noticed that there were only two men in the room; me and the man sitting next to me. I didn’t know this man and still don’t know much about him. But, when he began to speak, I learned a lot.

My first thought or judgment was “this man has a mental illness.” He had a slight speech impediment and I believe that anyone could see that he had some sort of mental health issue.

Yet, there he was. Providing updates, opinions, and giving his perspective on important issues. While I deal with mental health issues every day at work, I have never seen anything like that.

As I drove back to my office, I had two thoughts. The first was that I will never possess the courage of the man in the meeting. Second, the stigma associated with mental illness is unacceptable.

Mental illness, which includes autism, addiction, issues surrounding suicide, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia, affects every single American in one way or another. Mental illness does not discriminate regarding a person’s race, economic position, religion, or anything else. It is either developed over time or something a person is born with. No one would choose this type of illness.

Yet, society has done little to address the issue of mental illness. It seems easier to just sweep it under the rug and put people in jail. Today, the largest mental health facilities in each of the 159 counties in Georgia are the county jails. The largest in the United States is located in California at the Los Angeles County Jail. While in jail, I have seen mentally ill clients get much worse much faster than if they were being treated on the outside.

But, there are solutions. The first step in addressing the issue of mental illness is to focus on people who commit crimes because of their illness. This will remove some of the fear in the community.

The action of the first step is the establishment of mental health courts.

Today, the only place in west Georgia that has an active mental health court is in Troup County. In a nutshell, Troup County removes some mentally ill defendants from the county jail and places them into their mental health court. While participating, the defendant must attend all psychiatric and counseling sessions, take their medications (which are monitored by blood screens), and comply with others conditions that are designed to treat the illness.

These courts do not just help defendants. With the implementation of a mental health court, each county will eventually save money (primarily by not having to pay for the daily cost of inmates), decrease the rate of recidivism, decrease the rate of all types of crimes, decrease the number of crime victims, protect law enforcement officers, and treat the core issues that significantly contribute some criminal behavior.

Fortunately, a couple of other counties are in the process of establishing mental health courts. Good men and women are forging partnerships between government and the private sector to get this done.

I encourage you to think about how we treat mentally ill citizens in our community. Research mental health courts for yourself. If you are persuaded that these courts are a necessary first step, consider taking action yourself. You can become active in local mental health advocacy groups, talk to your elected officials about mental health courts, and find other ways to make an impact.

We need mental health courts in the other counties in west Georgia. This can and should be done sooner rather than later.