Mental health court honors first graduateThe South St. Louis County Mental Health Dispositional Court was formed to reverse the destructive paths of those suffering mental illness.
Tina Miller is an Army veteran now working as a nude dancer.
But she’s looking for a better job after using an innovative Duluth court program to help get her life in order while overcoming mental illness.
The 31-year-old free spirit wears a lebret piercing the dimple above where her chin starts. A helix pierces an ear cartilage, two hoops pierce her ear lobes and another is pierced above an eye brow. Her love of body art extends to the nine tattoos she wears.
The most relevant of Miller’s tattoos on Thursday was a black and blue Phoenix on the underside of her right forearm.
That tattoo was the one 6th Judicial District Judge Sally Tarnowski referred to when she hosted a special ceremony in her St. Louis County courtroom recognizing Miller as the first graduate of the South St. Louis County Mental Health Dispositional Court.
“You have been born again from the ashes, Tina, just like the Phoenix on your arm,” Tarnowski said. “You have shown courage, reliance and recovery. … You have shown us your ability to love and your ability to laugh. You are smart and I believe you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
Miller spent two months in the St. Louis County Jail after being charged with assaulting a hospital worker and a Duluth police officer who responded to the hospital in March 2009. In order to get out of jail, she said she asked to get into the mental health court.
To preserve her privacy, Miller, who is the divorced mother of children 10 and 5 years old, asked that she be referred to in this story by her maiden name, not the former married name she still lives under.
Miller is one of six defendants currently in the program, which is being conducted without funding. Tarnowski and a team of professionals volunteer their time over the noon hour once a week to work with those suffering from mental illness.
To be eligible for the program, the person’s offense must be clearly related to a severe and persistent mental illness.
If the person follows the conditions of probation and completes the program, they will receive a stay of adjudication and the crime will be wiped from their record.
“Before this court, I guess I struggled with a little bit of self -doubt,” Miller said. “But being through this court and them challenging me, I’ve realized that I’m capable of a whole lot more. So I feel confident in all my endeavors.”
Tarnowski’s team includes St. Louis County social worker Mike Baasch, Julie Seitz and Kim Davis with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, Arrowhead Regional Corrections probation officers Julie Roppe-Stern and Kathy Sieh and public defender Dan Lew. They helped Miller with chemical dependency, mental health, housing and medication.
Miller thanked them during the ceremony.
“All of you guys are very awesome, very effective,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen such a tight group of caring individuals. You are all very sincere.”
Roppe-Stern said Miller took advantage of everything the court had to offer her.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Roppe-Stern said. “She had some ups and downs, but what she realized is that people were looking out for her best interest and people on the team really did care about her. I think she was so mistrusting to begin with, but once she realized that people cared about her, she came around.’’
Miller sometimes told team members she didn’t like them, according to Tarnowski. She came to court under the influence of synthetic marijuana, but the judge said Miller was always honest, sometimes brutally so, and she abided by the consequence given and learned from it.
“She’s (Tarnowski) become my mentor and helped me adjust my train of thought,” Miller said. “She taught me a more responsible way of managing myself. She’s very much a role model who has been so very helpful to me.”
Her progress was tested when she had a manic episode she blamed on her use of a marijuana alternative called “Spice.”
“It makes you dumb as a box of rocks,” she said. “It just diminishes your brain capability to a point that you’re not functioning very well. It’s hard to maintain a conversation. It’s socially disruptive. It exacerbates my mental illness.”
For the first time in her life, Miller said, she had a manic episode and did not wind up in jail. She said she was able to keep control because of the counseling and treatment she received from mental health court.
Miller said she is not afraid to work hard. She once worked as a carpenter’s assistant during the day and as a stripper at night.
“I would get up and spend all day dry walling, go home and get cleaned up real quick and then go strip until 2 in the morning,” Miller said. “I actually came in after work once with mud still in my hair and speckled on my skin and I stripped down to just my tool belt. They loved it. It was great. I’m not at all embarrassed about who I am.”
Miller said she suffers from a bi-polar disorder.
“I’m on Lamictal now and it makes me feel like I’m a normal person,” she said. “In the past, everything made me feel worse than the condition itself. Those medications ruin your quality of life. They take everything that is good. They just take it. You have nothing.”
Miller said she served as an administrative specialist with the Army from 1997 stationed in Missouri and Japan.
When asked what kind of work she would like to do, Miller said: “I’m very customer ‘servicey,’ if that’s a word, and very personable.”