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ATHENS, Ala. – Police are often the only resources available when someone has a mental health crisis, especially in rural areas.

The Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, MHCNCA, in Decatur helps about 4,000 people per year who are suffering from a mental illness across Morgan, Lawrence, and Limestone counties.

That’s not enough.

Experts say demand for mental health services almost always outweigh available resources.

“When you put someone in a facility or even in a jail who’s committed a minor crime and obviously has a mental illness and jail’s not the most appropriate place, it creates a tremendous strain on our local sheriff’s, on our local jails, our local communities,” said Bill Giguere, the foundation development officer for MHCNCA.

There are outpatient mental health facilities and group homes in Limestone County to help those suffering from mental illness, but no emergency crisis facility.

Jail can often be the only option for a lot of people who need such a facility.

“The cost to put someone in incarceration is anywhere from three to five times greater than putting them in a residential facility,” Giguere said. “The problem is, we are lacking medically supervised emergency facilities.”

The state’s Stepping Up Alabama initiative has helped fund a mental health professional who goes to jails and helps inmates suffering from mental illnesses get resources.

“It has been tremendously successful in Morgan County where we’ve done it for two years now and tremendously successful in Limestone, to point to last year in Limestone County, 160 people were referred to the program,” he said. “Out of those, 80 in the program have since been released from jail with only a 5.6 percent recidivism rate.”

Recidivism is the likeliness someone will return to jail or prison after being released.

That rate can be as high as 80 percent in Limestone County, Giguere said.

While the Step Up Alabama program is effective, Giguere says the bottom line is that Limestone County needs a crisis intervention center like Huntsville has.