A mother of seven who now works the night shift, a man who discovered he has mentoring skills and a smiling woman dubbed "the mother hen of the bunch" were among the six graduates Thursday of the Floyd County Mental Health Court.
"I should be in prison right now, being a burden to the taxpayers. I owe a debt to y'all," said another man, whose employer — representing a local social services nonprofit — came to thank Floyd County Superior Court Judge Jack Niedrach for sending him.
Niedrach started the mental health court three years ago with the idea of diverting eligible offenders to treatment and rehabilitation instead of jail. They must be county residents, age 18 or older, he said, and diagnosed with a serious persistent mental illness. They also must be facing a sentence of at least 24 months, since the intensive program runs 18 to 24 months, and they must want to work at recovery.
During the ceremony in Niedrach's courtroom filled with supporters, each of the six said they're glad they tried.
"Without this program, and my mom and dad, I would not be here," said one woman, who was praised for creating artwork for her fellow graduates. "Mental health court saved my life."
The sixth graduate, who confessed a lifelong streak of stubbornness, said she wrongly believed the alternative sentence would be easy but she's come to know herself through the curriculum.
"I can now accept I'm not always right ... but I feel in better control of my actions," she said. "I know God has a plan for me."
Niedrach said the program is a joint effort by the judiciary, prosecution, defense, community service and law enforcement.
"And let me recognize the family members here today," he added. "Your presence is so important."
The guest speaker was Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's human resources committee. Niedrach called her "a strong advocate for the mentally ill," and Dempsey's congratulations to the graduates acknowledged their struggles and achievement.
"The light is shining brightly on you today ... it was hard, there's no doubt," she said before noting that the court serves a vital purpose in the local community — "to embrace the reality that mental illness is an illness. It requires treatment. It requires intensive care. It requires the support of others."
And Dempsey pointed out that two of the women with their young children in their arms symbolize the opportunities the graduates can now provide to their loved ones.
"Remind yourself (every day) that 'I did it, and I have to do it again today,'" she urged the class. "Not everybody can and not everybody will, but you did it."
Along with their certificates of completion, Niedrach presented each graduate with a custom-made medallion bearing the state seal on one side and, on the other, the tenets of the program: Change Attitude, Change Behavior, Change Life.