PLATTSBURGH — Carissa LaPier waited nervously outside a Clinton County courtroom, her graduation from a grueling program at last at hand.
She had been working toward the milestone for more than three years.
“I never thought this day would come,” she said. “It saved my life. Without (Clinton County) Mental Health Court or any of my supports, I’d be sitting in jail right now.”
The program offers the strict guidance of a team that includes members from both law enforcement and mental-health treatment. Participants are required to stick to a treatment plan, take medications as ordered and, among other rules, report in on a regular basis.
“It’s been rough, and it was hard work,” Carissa said.
By her side were her mother, Clare, her sister Camille and a friend, Tonyea Ellis.
“It’s quite emotional for all of us,” Clare said. “It’s been a long process.”
“I’m very proud of Carissa’s achievements,” Camille said. “I’m glad to see her smile and get through it finally.”
“She’s overcome a lot of barriers and challenges.”
Carissa’s other sister, Rosie, and her father, David, could not be at the ceremony but have offered unwavering support to Carissa in her journey to graduation, Clare said.
HARD TO GET HELP
Because Carissa was older than 18 and legally an adult, it was hard to find help for her when she needed it most, Clare said.
“It really took her getting into trouble to get her help,” she said.
In 2009, Carissa pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless endangerment, unlawful interference with a railroad train and fourth-degree criminal mischief. She was sentenced to five years probation.
She hopes to put all that behind her once her probation expires in 10 months.
Doctors at various times diagnosed her with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and personality disorders.
Growing up, Carissa endured harsh treatment from her classmates while attending school in Plattsburgh, Clare said.
It hit her hard.
“She didn’t feel accepted there.”
There’s more awareness and acceptance of mental illness in schools now, said Clare, a teaching assistant at Momot Elementary School.
But stigma still exists, Carissa said.
“I really hope that people in our community can realize that a smile, a hello or a simple meaningful conversation, whether in a public setting or at a family get-together, can go a long way to help someone who suffers from mental illness,” Clare said.
Now, Carissa is being treated for a mood disorder, Clare said. Finding the right combination of medication took a while, she said.
The City of Plattsburgh established the Mental Health Court program in January 2006. At the time, it was the fifth in the state, said former City Court Judge and Clinton County District Attorney Penelope Clute.
She was instrumental in the program’s initiation, and before her retirement, presided over Mental Heath Court.
Now, City Court oversees participants who come to the program with misdemeanor charges; Clinton County Court handles felony cases.
For participants who stick it out, she said, “it’s a lot of work. Some people would rather be in jail.”
Three people are currently enrolled in program.
Mental Health Court participants are not held above the law.
“Every mistake,” Clare said of Carissa, “she’s been held accountable.”
Clinton County Surrogate Court Judge Kevin Ryan hasn’t been easy on Carissa; he challenged her to be better, Clare said.
“Not every individual is going to make it in Mental Health Court,” Ryan said during Carissa’s graduation. “But when one does, it is a marvelous feeling (to know) that we have contributed.”
Clute took the podium, standing next to Carissa, and spoke to her directly.
“You, Carissa, have done the impossible,” she said. “You are a very strong person.”
In addition to her family and friends, Carissa had a large support system of professionals and specialists with varied expertise that have helped her along the way.
She has great respect for her counselor, Christine Stowe, rehabilitation coordinator for Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) at Behavioral Health Services North, and Paul Ferrari, clinical coordinator of PROS.
“The theme of your graduation is not giving up,” Ferrari told her.
Also on the PROS team are probation officer Carrie Turner, Assistant District Attorney Jamie Douthat and Mary Krakowski of CVPH Medical Center.
“They never gave up on me when I wanted to give up on myself,” Carissa said.
She is looking forward to pursuing her interests, which include nature photography and working with animals. She recently saved up and bought a camera.
And soon she will take a test to earn her GED diploma, something Ryan said he is eager to see her do.
The program has given Carissa a new lease on life.
“I look at it as a new start.”
Email Felicia Krieg: firstname.lastname@example.org
MENTAL HEALTH COURT
The program, overseen both in City of Plattsburgh and Clinton County court, is open to people diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness who have a pending criminal case.
The judge, district attorney and defense attorneys, along with the defendant, have to agree the case should move to Mental Health Court.
The court team must agree the person needs the kind of structure, support and accountability offered by the program. And motivation to take part, including agreement to take prescribed medication and participation in the PROS program at Behavioral Health Services North, is a must.