FAIRFAX, Va. (WUSA9) -- The death of Natasha McKenna, who was shocked with a stun gun in the Fairfax County Jail in February of 2015, has led to big changes. County leaders say the tragedy galvanized support for a strong Diversion First program.
Diversion First is an effort to get help to low-risk offenders struggling with mental illness instead of jailing them.
"I was sick and needed help, not jail time. I needed support not stigma or judgment," said Kevin Earley who struggled with bipolar disorder as a young man. He's now a success story, but things could've easily gone the other way.
"I was a young man paranoid, desperate. Due to my illness, I broke the law and endangered myself," he said.
Earley, like McKenna, was also jailed in the Fairfax County detention center. Because she would not cooperate she was Tased four times.
McKenna later died. Kevin Early was also shocked by police with a Taser.
"I think it scared the police more than it scared me. I was in a manic state. I broke free from the police and ran 20 yards," said Earley.
He says he finally realized he needed help and got it with the support of family, friends and a treatment team. "I know first-hand the recovery from people with mental illness is possible because I am proof that it is."
Earley is telling his story at a county event at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community services board.
The new Merrifield facility has a Crisis Response Center, which is at the heart of the county's Diversion First effort. It's where a police officer can bring a low-risk offender who is experiencing a mental health crisis instead of jail.
"Sometimes it takes a tragedy to get people's attention....This is about awareness and educating folks," Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid said.
Earley said a diversion program helped save his life and he's proof that it works. "It's important to recognize the death of Natasha McKenna as a horrible thing and hopes it never occurs again," Early said.
Earley says he has been on medication for nine years with no episodes or hospitalizations. He's now a peer counselor at the Fairfax-Falls Church CSB, helping others with mental illness.
Hundreds of people have already benefitted from the Diversion First program and the new center, according to county leaders. But, it's just a first ten. The Crisis Response Center is not a residential facility. Sheriff Kincaid said she' seen to the General Assembly asking for more beds...not for the jail, but for treatment facilities.
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