VOICES: Real leadership, transparency required to address mental health crisis

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Our region is now well aware we are in a crisis and it is time for leaders to act like it. Mavericks — I mean leaders — are needed today.

No, we don’t need heroes that fly fighter jets and wear aviator glasses. We need leadership that innovates, collaborates, and practices accountability through transparency. It is on the public to demand proof of that formula and, in turn, practice the same mantra.

I am the Montgomery County Probate Judge and privileged to serve. In Ohio, the probate judge oversees involuntarily commitments of mentally ill persons who may be a danger to themselves or others. I also care deeply about the safety of my community as well as the rights of patients on my docket. I believe our system is overwhelmed and unequipped. Serious change is needed, but there is hope when leaders choose to lead by collaborating, innovating and holding leaders and their agencies accountable.

Collaboration is vital. When I was elected, I saw a confused and opaque mental health system that is disjointed and siloed. I acknowledge it will take a village to address it.

First, I asked several Ohio county probate judges, health boards and other leaders if I could visit their counties, observe their processes, and ask questions. All counties accepted (Summit, Hamilton, Franklin, Greene, Butler). They have fantastic ideas and resources.

In April 2021, I invited the local mental health government stakeholders to start meeting regularly. The Sheriff, Prosecutor, Public Defender, court administrators from the Common Pleas Court and the Dayton Municipal Court, County Commissioners, prosecutors from the City of Dayton Law Department and representatives from the ADAMHS, among others, participate. It has been a success in that those leaders acknowledge we have a problem and we are willing to collaborate.

Second, innovation is imperative. We need to share just enough data between justice partners (police, courts, etc.) and treatment providers (hospitals and clinics) to ensure a patient’s and public’s safety, while protecting privacy interests. The Internet and “cloud” computing solve the old technological barriers. For too long, stakeholders refused to “think big” because of legal, ethical or political barriers. No more “we can’t” attitude. My Court has innovated by sharing access to mental health dockets. We have been diligently crafting local rules, new forms, new orders, and new processes which do not yet exist in Ohio probate courts. We have (nearly daily) meetings with outside police, County administrators, doctors, attorneys, elected officials, social workers and numerous other stakeholders. We are opening up our doors to share data and processes so that we can do our part to fit into the mental health ecosystem. Just check our website at mcohio.org/probate.

Finally, and most important, is accountability. By that I mean crafting a system that can identify any failure through transparency. Our mental illness docket is now online and it becomes very evident if a filing doesn’t occur (and by whom) or the case history screams that a patient should have been transported to a hospital instead of the jail. These are merely examples of my agency scrutinizing all involved, including my own Court. There’s much more transparency that needs to come from other agencies. If leaders or organizations fail, it is time to hold them accountable. The public, in turn, must be held accountable to do the same either at the ballot box or by letter to legislators.

For the leaders working to address this, I caution all of us not to buy into pie-in-the sky promises that have delayed and hindered legitimate change. Politics, self-interest, dollars and egos are red flags. Mavericks aren’t only needed in the movies, they are needed now to address the mental health flash point. To succeed, however, genuine collaboration, innovation and accountability are required.

David D. Brannon is the Montgomery County Probate Court Judge.

About the Author