A 'better path' for helping mentally ill

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Norm Ornstein is an accomplished author and speaker and one of the nation's preeminent political analysts.

He's also a grieving father. In 2015, Ornstein's beloved son Matthew, a champion debater, died in a tragic accident at the age of 34 after battling mental illness for a decade.

In the aftermath, Ornstein would courageously share his family's efforts to help Matthew and then honor his legacy by helping others. "When you suffer the unspeakable grief of losing a child, you have to decide whether you curl up into a ball or do something that, even in some modest way, turns the grief to purpose," Ornstein said in a recent interview.

That mission led to the creation of the Matthew Ornstein Memorial Foundation. This week, one of the organization's high-profile initiatives, a documentary film, is helping inspire a University of Minnesota forum with a timely focus: the criminal justice system's response to those with serious mental illness.

The program is titled "A Better Path to Achieving Public Safety." It will be held Thursday, Aug. 11 at the Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs by the U's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

The program runs from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm There's also an option to attend via Zoom, the online video conferencing tool. Registration is required but free at tinyurl.com/BetterPathWebinar.

The news reflected in too many recent headlines has underlined the event's importance and the need for improvement. Although Matthew Ornstein did not die in an encounter with the police, inexpert responses to those suffering mental health crises have often ended in tragedy.

The documentary film is called "The Definition of Insanity." The title is a nod to a well-known, though apocryphal, quote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

But the hourlong film doesn't dwell on the current criminal justice system's longstanding deficiencies. Instead it highlights the innovative Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project led by Judge Steve Leifman in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Founded in 2000, the program deals head-on with the reality that many of those with serious mental illness wind up in law enforcement custody. The project's aim is "to divert individuals with serious mental illnesses ... and substance use disorders away from the criminal justice system and into comprehensive community-based treatment and support services." It also includes services to help the mentally ill access public health care programs and ensure treatment compliance.

It's a preventive approach with broad benefits. Those who are treated can become productive citizens instead of being housed in jail at public expense. Or, reoffending after release.

"The Definition of Insanity" is an unsparing look at the challenges inherent in this. Despite dedicated program staff, substance abuse temporarily derails one promising program enrollee. Another, a young father and construction worker, struggles to stay on track while juggling treatment and responsibilities at home.

The film won't be shown at the University of Minnesota event due to time constraints. But it is available for viewing online at doifilm.com/.

The forum will feature conversations about this vital issue. Panelists include Ornstein, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, lawmakers and Cedric AlexanderMinneapolis' first community safety commissioner.

We hope the program also covers the good work that has been done in Minnesota, too. Lawmakers in the recently concluded session passed a complex fix to fill a gap in the criminal justice system that the mentally ill can fall through. The reform, known as competency restorationwill help ensure that those deemed incompetent to stand trial get the treatment they need.

Blue Earth County's award-winning Yellow Line Project also deserves a spotlight. It provides "an early response to individuals with acute or chronic mental or chemical health problems who have become involved with law enforcement and are not a risk to the community." A focus of this acclaimed program: enhanced resources and tools for law enforcement to ensure that county residents in need of medical care get it.

It's worth noting that Ornstein is a Minnesota native. His home state is grateful for the mission he's shouldered in his grief. Reforms to help others struggling with mental illness are complex undertakings. Conversations like this week's forum at the U will provide the inspiration and information necessary to move forward.

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