One little change. One challenge. One worthwhile idea. 


If everyone is committed, sometimes that’s all it takes. 


Nearly 18 months ago, a handful of County Commissioners began their PLAN leadership journey with no clue what was ahead. They just wanted to learn about leadership and build relationships. Instead, they’ve changed the state’s focus on mental health and – in the process – changed themselves. 

Justin Sawyer of Monroe County says the 12 Commissioners participating in the 20-month program have learned that “to be considered a great leader, you have to have people around you that lift you to a higher level. This group has done that for me.” 

Things began innocently enough in January of 2023. The group met each other in person to get acquainted and to tell their own stories. Then, they spent four months listening to and discussing an audio leadership series from Association favorite Dr. Kevin Elko. The group gathered virtually to discuss their own experiences, the insights of Dr. Elko and the problems they faced in their own communities. 

The program asked a simple question: Are you “interested” in accomplishing something great, or are you “committed?” recalls PLAN member Debra Riley of Chambers County. “We all have interests, but are we committed and internally motivated to make a difference? It’s not been an easy journey, but it has great rewards,” she said. 

The Commissioners learned about commitment – both the price that must be paid, as well as the real meaning of investing your heart into something beyond what’s expected of you. They all agreed that leadership requires sacrifice and a commitment that requires your time, energy and passion. 

“I believe this is one of the best opportunities ever offered to me,” said Baldwin County Commissioner Jeb Ball. “I now do things differently and no longer focus on how it benefits me but rather on how what I do will benefit others.” 

The unique leadership experience pushes the members to take responsibility for growing leadership qualities inside themselves and inside every other participant. There are no rules, no written process; the group – and its passion – drive the program. 

And for this group, and for the entire state of Alabama, one single decision changed so much. 

The program has always culminated in each member finding a local project to grow their leadership skills and to focus their passion on improving their individual communities. Each Commissioner then spends a year working in their local community and convincing others to join them back home. 

When it came time for this group to identify their individual projects, they went in a different direction – a single focus for all 12. 

Each member dedicated their energy and passion to start a movement toward improved mental health services. The results have been remarkable and will, no doubt, continue beyond the official conclusion of the program in August. 

“Mental health will most definitely remain a top priority for me during and after my time in office,” said Patti Rhodes, a Commissioner in Hale County. “It makes me so happy knowing I played a part in bringing the Stepping Up program to Hale and Greene counties.” 

Those at the 2023 Association Convention may remember Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter’s disappointment in the lack of participation in the Stepping Up program – a national initiative that places a mental health caseworker in the county jail to evaluate the mental health needs of inmates. 

As the Legislature’s most outspoken advocate for this program, Ledbetter was surprised that so few jails had recognized the need to take an active role in addressing the mental health needs of jail inmates. While less than 20 jails were utilizing the program a year ago, the program is expanding this summer to another 29 counties as a direct result of the work of the 12 PLAN members. 

“The past 18 months have been some of the most professionally rewarding of my entire life,” said ACCA Executive Director Sonny Brasfield. “Watching a handful of Commissioners change the conversation about mental health has been nothing short of amazing. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes us.” 

The involvement and engagement of the members have been incredible.  

In addition to spearheading an initiative to expand participation in the Stepping Up program, over the past 18 months, the PLAN members have collectively: 

  •     Conducted exploratory meetings with Probate Judges and Sheriffs to learn more about mental health operations at the local level and to pinpoint areas of improvement
  •     Surveyed Probate Judges in all 67 counties to gauge mental health concerns and needs
  •     Worked with state and local government leaders and mental health advocates to comprehensively assess the mental health issues in Alabama, done through PLAN’s representation on the Alabama Legislature’s Joint Mental Health Ad Hoc Committee
  •     Educated the County Family through various events on the group’s progress and the subsequent local-level impact and implementation
  •     Successfully advocated for the enactment of a law that, effective January 1, 2025, will:

      Allow counties to utilize their opioid settlement dollars to fund treatment for individuals suffering from co-existing mental illness and substance abuse disorders 

      Create a process for individuals with active commitment orders who become incarcerated while awaiting a mental health bed to still receive treatment once a bed becomes available 

      Allow Probate Judges to still connect individuals with active commitment orders to treatment if they travel outside the county where the orders were filed 

      Expand the authority for Probate Judges to seek input from medical professionals before ordering a temporary mental health commitment 

      Allow Probate Judges to use their discretion in ordering physical court appearances for individuals with mental illness 

The journey will come full circle at this year’s Convention, as the Association honors this group and focuses discussion on using opioid settlement funds on treatment opportunities, implementing Stepping Up and Critical Intervention Team training in county jails, and establishing a pilot project on substance abuse evaluations. 

“I know our time as a group will soon come to an end,” Sawyer concluded, “but I believe being an advocate for mental health will be a part of my life from now on.”  

PLAN 2024 participated in a ceremonial bill signing last week for SB240 with Governor Kay Ivey, the mental health legislation that the group took as its passion project. Center Governor Kay Ivey from left to right Marion County Commissioner Kenneth Cochran, Commissioner Bibb County Charles Caddell, Baldwin County Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood, ACCA Executive Director Sonny Brasfield, Chilton County Jimmie Hardee, Limestone County Chairman Collin Daly, Baldwin County Commissioner Jeb Ball, Etowah County Tim Ramsey, Washington County Commissioner Jason Boothe, ACCA Director of Communications Abby Fitzpatrick, Sen. Will Barfoot, Monroe County Justin Sawyer, ACCA Assistant Executive Director Lauren Hodge, Hale County Patti Rhodes, Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Kim Boswell, Marshall County Rick Watson, Chambers County Debra Riley 

Act 2024-193 by Sen. Will Barfoot & Rep. Russell Bedsole amends Alabama’s involuntary commitment law so that a co-occurring substance use disorder may be included in a commitment petition and order.  The bill also addresses jurisdictional and procedural issues affecting Probate Judges. First, the act provides that where the respondent was located at the time of the filing is what matters procedurally, not where the respondent is later located. Second, the act expands Probate Judges’ ability to consult with qualified mental health professionals in making their determinations. Lastly, when an individual with an active commitment order is later confined on solely misdemeanor charges or municipal ordinance violations, this act allows Probate Judges to communicate with a district, municipal, or circuit court judge about suspending the criminal proceedings temporarily so that the commitment order may be fulfilled. The prosecuting attorney must be given an opportunity to object to the discharge order. The law becomes effective January 1, 2025.