By NIKKI YOUNK
FLORENCE, Wis. - Each year near the end of winter, the Florence County Sheriff's Department starts seeing an increase in mental health-related calls.
The department recently responded to five separate cases over a period of 10 days.
Florence County Sheriff Jeff Rickaby said that he does not have a definitive reason for the annual increase.
"I've just noticed that in February and March, people with mental health issues seem to struggle more," he said. "Our mental health commitments jump."
In Wisconsin, only two groups of people have the authority to place a mentally ill person under involuntary commitment: doctors and law enforcement officers.
Rickaby explained that a person must either be a danger to himself or others in order to be committed.
If committed by a law enforcement officer, the person is taken into custody, but not incarcerated in the jail.
"It's medical, not criminal," Rickaby pointed out. "We place them in custody for their protection."
While in custody, the person is interviewed by a social worker. If the social worker determines that the person needs treatment, the person will be transported to a mental health facility.
Deputies from the Florence County Sheriff's Department often utilize a hospital in Rhinelander, Wis.
All commitments must be reviewed by a judge within 48 hours. Since Florence County does not have a resident judge, the person is transported to Judge Leon Stenz in Crandon, Wis. for a hearing.
The judge can then decide if the person must continue treatment.
Although all of these transportation costs are a burden on the county, Rickaby noted that his department must comply with each step of the commitment process.
Rickaby said that nine out of 10 involuntary commitments that he sees involve suicidal people who are in danger of harming themselves. Rarely does he see a case in which a person is threatening others.
Rickaby suggests that now is a good time to stay close with family and friends who might be suffering from mental health issues such as depression.
"See how they're doing," he said. "Get them to a doctor, hospital, or counselor if they need it."
These days, social media websites also play a part in alerting officials to potentially suicidal subjects.
Rickaby said that in a recent case, a person from another state called the department to report that a relative in Florence County had posted some troubling statements on a social media website.
Deputies were then able to step in and assist.
Rickaby added that people should not be afraid to get officials involved.
"People often wonder where to go - to the doctor, to the ER," he said. "We can offer some direction."
Nikki Younk's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.