New program aims to help the mentally ill

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT)-- Nearly a quarter of a million people in Tennessee live with mental illness and while not all mentally ill patients are violent, some do end up in trouble. Now, a new pilot project in Knox County will help families get help for their loved ones.

The idea started with former State Senator and now Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett six years ago. Since then State Senator Doug Overbey and newly elected Senator Becky Massey have been pushing the program in Nashville.

Knox County is the only county with this pilot program for two big reasons; five years ago, a deadly shooting committed by a mentally ill man and now because the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute is about to close.

The deadly shooting happened December 29, 2007 at Hooter's on Kingston Pike. Police say that 25-year-old David Rudd wounded a manager and killed a father of eight from Michigan after a dispute over a bar tab. The investigation found that Rudd suffered from a mental illness and his family told police if he would have stayed on his medicine, this wouldn't have happened.

In 2007, families didn't have the right to step in and legally make a loved one take their medicine or go to treatment. But now under this new pilot program called, Assisted Outpatient Treatment, they have the right.

State Senator Doug Overbey explains, "This gives them an option to file a petition with the court and the court can issue an order requiring the person to get back on their medication or get treatment. It would be an outpatient program that would be highly supervised by the Helen Ross McNabb Center."

Support for the AOT pilot program has gained strong support in the past couple of months due to the closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute.

"The State Department of Mental Health committed to keep some of the 20 million dollars from the closing of Lakeshore in the East Tennessee area and we [Senator Overbey and Senator Massy] thought what better way to utilize those funds than start a pilot project."

The hope is to keep mentally ill patients out of the hospital, out of jail and out of trouble.

Tennessee Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service, Doug Varney said "There's a due process that's part of this pilot to ensure the person does need the service and it's being done for the right reasons. We have to make sure we don't take the rights away from the patient."

If all goes well over the next two year with the AOT pilot program; the state hopes to expand it to other counties in Tennessee.

The specifics of the program are still being worked out but the pilot program will start in October with about 10 people.

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