Sharon Wise started on the road toward a long battle with addictions at 5 years old.
As a young adult, she overcame the years of drugs and other destructive behaviors that bounced her in and out of jails, prisons and homelessness -- after someone reached out to her with just clean underwear and $2.
It was what she needed.
Wise’s message to hundreds attending Florida Partners in Crisis’ annual conference: Those dealing with people with signs of mental illness need to change the question they’re asking people in trouble.
“Nobody ever asked me what happened,” she said. They asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
What happened to her was sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – and a downward spiral without love or guidance as she grew up.
Now a nationally honored motivational speaker and reunited with her own children and grandchildren, Wise has made it her cause to help people like her and to help others understand what is needed.
She encouraged people in the group – lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, service providers – to help the people they serve to find value in their lives.
“You’re missing the boat if you don’t use the people that you’re serving,” encouraging them get the people who need to stay out of the criminal justice system involved in the cause.
Wise’s presentation was preceded by opening remarks by Judge Steven Leifman, a Miami-Dade judge who is chairman of the board of the nonprofit Florida Partners in Crisis.
He emphasized the cost of keeping people with mental illness and substance abuse issues in prison and the criminal courts.
He said it would cost Florida $4 billion to build prisons in the next 10 years for the growing number of prisoners with mental illnesses, saying “something is wrong with a society” that pays more to incarcerate than treat.
The goal of this conference, Leifman said, is “working with communities to help people with these disorders.”