GREAT FALLS – “I’m not sure why but at that time I would roam around my parent’s house looking for something to overdose on; in other words, I was suicidal.”
Virginia “Ginny” Carnes said she started noticing signs of mental illness at a young age. It was also around that time she learned she had been molested.
“I’m sure that that had a great influence on that. But thirteen was when I started noticing symptoms,” she said.
Carnes would spend the next twenty-one years of her life in Kansas, her mental health contributing to the anger she felt but couldn’t explain.
In 1979 at twenty-one years old, Carnes would start going out at night and harassing law enforcement in Kansas.
“Trying to get a ticket because I knew that would made my dad mad,” Carnes said.
Carnes says her father’s disbelief in mental illness caused pain during that time. She describes a conversation with her father following a court-ordered visit to the state hospital after leading police on a high speed chase.
“When they sent me home on a weekend leave my dad asked me, in a very serious, very angry voice, ‘Are you insane?’ and that, that cut me to the heart you know that really hurt; I knew I wasn’t insane but I knew I had a problem,” she said.
Through all of her visits to prison, the state hospital and clinics in the years following, Carnes’ father continued to deny the existence of mental illness.
She received forms of therapy, but was never prescribed the right treatment.
“My dad would say, ‘Well yeah, stop playing the games,’ and I said, ‘Dad, I’m not playing games.'”
Carnes’ move to Montana would come in 1992 following a conversation with a job coach after an overdose landed her in a clinic.
“(The) job coach asked me where I wanted to be in five years and I said you know I’d rather be in Montana working on a ranch.”
Carnes eventually decided to move to the Treasure State for her health.
“Looked around, fell in love with Great Falls – hated Billings (laughs), and I knew that when I drove into Great Falls that I was home,” she said.
While she considered herself better off, the crimes continued against local law enforcement, eventually leading to a felony charge.
“When I moved here in 1998, she was part of our process in the field officer training program, because this had been going on for some time. We all knew her vehicle, we all knew her, and we all knew where she lived,” said Capt. John Schaffer with the Great Falls Police Department Investigative Bureau.
After spending 94 days in jail, Carnes was placed on a three year probation with time served in 1998.
She would find herself back behind bars after driving through an active police scene.
After her last jail visit in 1998, Carnes saw a new psychiatrist who ultimately found her the right medication.
“I told my probation officer, I said this is a miracle drug, I have no inappropriate anger in me, I mean I get angry at things yes but it wasn’t 24/7,” she said.
Carnes says if it weren’t for her medication, she would still be struggling with the anger she felt for so long.
“I would be in prison or I would be dead. I had an awful lot of officers draw guns on me and chances that one day somebody would have pulled the trigger or I would have gone to prison for stalking were very strong,” she said.
One of those officers prepared in the event of a crisis was GFPD Captain David Bowen. He described his first encounter with Ginny in an alley at night:
“I was out on patrol and I had to do some police reports and so I backed my car in and was writing a report with the dome light on. It was at night, and I had this weird feeling that someone was watching me, so I dimmed the light and looked and here was a car sticking out of an ally with someone in it. Turns out it was Virginia – and I had heard enough stories and I thought, ‘I’m gonna go find out what she’s all about’. So I go over there and approach her in her vehicle, and we started a strange dialogue between myself, Virginia and an empty car seat in the back; and so the three of us had this conversation and it was strange and her behavior was up and down and I felt really unsettled and unsafe and so I quickly ended the conversation, got back in my cruiser, and that was my first introduction to Virginia,” said Bowen.
Carnes now counsels an addiction support group through the Montana Peer Network and sits on several boards that advocate for better mental health services; her working with officers allowed them to go from being adversaries to allies.
“It’s tremendous to have the partnerships that we’re forming that at one time we had someone who we’re afraid of and now we’re walking to combat an issue hand in hand,” said Schaffer, who serves alongside Ginny on the Cascade County Local Advisory Committee.
But Ginny’s work is far from finished.
“Ever since then that’s been my goal is to get somebody in (the) jail who can work with people because right now if you’re suicidal or you’re out of control they isolate you- and that’s about the worst thing you can do to a person with mental illness,” she said.
Bowen says her story has helped remind him to never give up hope – even during those uneasy conversations in dark alleys.
“Never become cynical, because people can change and I think she’s a wonderful example of how people can do that and it’s changed my outlook – Captain Schaffer and I both – how we view people. I’ll tell you what it’s miraculous what’s happened and I’m so proud of her,” said Bowen.
Carnes now describes her relationship with her father as “fantastic”.
While she aims to help those already behind bars, the Great Falls Police Department has been working to prevent people with mental illnesses from going to prison by using the help of mental health professionals.
GFPD leaders say law enforcement agencies are six months into their partnership with the Center for Mental Health in the Center’s crisis response team, or CRT.
Captain John Schaffer with Great Falls Police Department’s Investigative Services says that trained professionals from the Center will go out with officers on mental health calls to try and move past the crisis and stabilize the situation.
He says this has saved the department time while also improving outcomes; 80% of the time that officers work with a mental health professional, they are able to do something other than institutionalization or hospitalization.
“If we can keep people with mental illness from committing crimes or getting into the criminal justice system, we’re gonna all be better off. We’ve been trying to arrest our way out of a lot of things for a long time and it just hasn’t worked, and it won’t work there,” said Schaffer.
Center for Mental Health leaders say funding for the CRT came from the county, after commissioners outlined a number of goals including decreasing jail admissions for those with addictions and mental illnesses.
The CRT currently works with local agencies including GFPD and the Cascade County Sheriff’s office.
Reporting by Keeley Van Middendorp for MTN News