Sarpy County’s efforts to care for imprisoned mentally ill persons has drawn national attention.

The county has been named one of 13 counties across the United States deemed Stepping Up Innovator Counties in the field of mental health. Among the other 12 honored is neighboring Douglas County.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the United States has 3,141 counties or county-equivalents, which means the designation places Sarpy County in the top half of 1 percent of U.S. counties dealing with mental health issues.

The designation was conferred by the National Association of Counties, The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, all of which have combined to seek reductions in the number of people in jail suffering mental illness.

Sarpy County joined the Stepping Up campaign in 2015, subsequently creating a Mental Health Leadership Team charged with coordinating a coordinated countywide response to the issue.

That response consists of three parts.

The Mental Health Diversion program diverts people toward treatment instead of incarceration, while a Mental Health Case Management program supervises those awaiting trial, monitoring treatment referrals and helping to establish independent living skills.

The Mental Health Collaboration Team, which includes representatives from Human Services, Community Corrections, Adult Corrections, the Public Defender’s Office and Region 6 Behaviorial Health, gathers data on individuals in the criminal justice system who suffer mental illness.

“Jails across the country have become de facto mental health facilities, with people in crisis cycling in and out of the system,” said Don Kelly, chairman of the County Board. “It takes purposeful action and innovative ideas to break that cycle.”

As an Innovator County, Sarpy County is expected to help other counties improve their data collection efforts by participating in training sessions and sharing information.

The county is currently engaged in negotiations with Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue to build a mental health treatment center.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.