Mental health emergencies a challenge in Portage County – Record

The tragic domestic shooting death of a Brimfield mother has left many wondering if her death was preventable and how mental health services could have intervened.

Both Erik Cunningham, accused of shooting his wife Dec. 31, and 13-year-old Elijah Lishing, convicted of killing his brother last year, were reportedly taken to Coleman Professional Services just days before their alleged crimes.

Cunningham, 31, had called Brimfield police to his home Dec. 30 to show them electronic equipment he had disassembled in a search for surveillance devices. His parents agreed to take him to Coleman that day. He was arrested after police found the body of his wife, Lacie, 33, dead in their garage on Jan. 3.

In October, Lishing was found delinquent for killing his 11-year-old brother, Caleb, on April 23. Just four days before his brother was murdered, Elijah’s stepmother took him to the police station for being “unruly.” There, he expressed a desire to harm himself, and was taken for mental evaluation.

Police said Elijah took a .357 Magnum used to kill his brother from his grandparents’ home by dismantling part of a locked cabinet.

Coleman Professional Services is a not-for-profit provider of behavioral health and rehabilitation services in seven counties around Ohio. Officials were not able to comment on either specific case due to federal privacy laws.

However, Coleman President and CEO Nelson Burns said it is not fair to judge the services of the center based on two cases, noting there’s a shortage of in-patient treatment options.

“I will say, our trained staff — I’m very, very proud of our trained staff on their ability to evaluate thousands and thousands of people and to take it under a microscope of one or two or whatever across Ohio in how many we’re doing is a little bit unfair,” Burns said.

He described the process of taking an individual into prolonged custody for treatment as a “gray area.”

The process involves paperwork from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and is informally called a “pink slip” because the paperwork is pink. The person has to be determined to be a risk to themselves or to others, due to homicidal or violent behavior, or threats.

Under Ohio law, law enforcement and some mental health professionals are able to take people with mental health issues into custody for involuntary emergency admission for psychological care, Burns said.

“This is not necessarily objective; it’s very subjective based on how they appear, how they’re answering questions, etc. … ” Burns said.

Because law enforcement officers often are the first to deal with dangerous mental situations, some police departments in Portage County receive crisis intervention training, a program that helps officers learn to de-escalate mental health situations and identify people who may need additional help, said Dr. John Garrity, director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County.

“That is an evidence-based practice that helps officers learn more about mental health, more about crisis and how to interact with someone in a mental health crisis,” Garrity said.

CIT training takes about 40 hours, said Streetsboro Police Sgt. Andy Suvada, who is in charge of CIT training in Portage County.

The training includes information on basic mental health issues, de-escalation techniques and scenario-based training, Suvada said. The training also includes an introduction to numerous agencies that police work within the county and that police can use as a different avenue to get people into treatment — instead of placement in the crowded county jail.

The training also is available to school personnel.

Police also can encourage individuals to voluntarily seek help at Coleman Professional Services, Burns said.

Burns said staff will then screen the person and try to find a hospital for them if the individual does need mental health services. That screening process involves both questioning and watching the person’s behavior, he added.

“It’s a practice of asking questions about what they’re feeling like, what’s the situation, why they’re coming here,” Burns said.

Even if a situation is severe enough for police to take an individual in for treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean the system will work.

Suvada said he had taken some of the same people to the hospital several times.

“The system is overwhelmed,” Suvada said.

Burns said the caseload is a severe problem, adding there are not enough psychiatric hospitals in the state of Ohio, and they can reject patients for several reasons, including having the wrong insurance or for not meeting that hospital’s criteria for admittance.

“So if we would call a hospital, XYZ hospital, and they won’t accept them based on criteria or based on money, on insurances or Medicaid, there’s a lot of different reasons,” Burns said. “None of which sometimes the police get the explanations for, because it’s a private health information, in that regard.”

Additional services, such as Coleman’s own crisis beds, are available for those who need them, Burns said. In Portage County, 11 crisis beds are available for people who need help, but don’t need to be hospitalized.

If a hospital bed can’t be found immediately, Burns said, the person has to wait at Coleman until a bed can be found. He said his agency has been advocating against that problem.

Overall, Burns said, it can be hard to get mental health help for those who need it. 

“You can see how challenging it is for us in our profession,” Burns said. “We’re devoted to our clients and their families. It’s getting harder and harder, especially with the drug addiction issue … It’s a real challenge for us.”

Contact reporter Eileen McClory at emcclory@recordpub.com or @Eileen_McClory.

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