For decades, the responsibility of helping people in the throes of a mental health crisis has fallen to police departments, and communities across the United States have struggled with the safety and effectiveness of this division of labour. – wondering if there’s a better way to get the help they need. need.
When it comes to responding to mental health calls, “Historically, society has relied on officers,” Galveston, Texas police chief Doug Balli said during a roundtable Thursday on a multi-agency mental health crisis response initiative launched in the city later this year. The initiative, which will create multidisciplinary response teams, brings together civilian medical professionals and public safety officers for a unified holistic response.
Traditionally, the burden of helping people in crisis has been shouldered by law enforcement professionals, who are not necessarily equipped to do so. Limited by training and the extent of their responsibilities, police generally have two avenues of response: “Handcuffs and emergency (psychiatric) detention orders. We all know detention isn’t usually the solution,” Balli said, and “arresting people in mental health crisis for minor offenses isn’t shown to be very effective in these situations.”
While Galveston, an island community of about 50,000 people off the coast of Texas, has benefited from county sheriff’s mental health intervention programs, it is not a sustainable structure.
“We know they’re in high demand across the county to address these issues,” Balli said.
Starting in October, the new initiative will create teams of licensed mental health professionals, paramedics and specially trained law enforcement officers to respond to people in crisis. Healthcare workers will help those in crisis and law enforcement will ensure everyone is safe, a role they are well equipped for.
BJ Wagner, senior vice president of health and public safety at the Meadows Institute, which works with city administrators to implement the program, noted “there has long been a precedent for law enforcement. ‘order’ not only to help people in crisis, but to provide security. for first responders.
“Mental illness is a medical need,” Wagner said. “If we continue to respond to mental health emergencies instead of (solving) unmet medical care needs,” the problem will persist.
To this end, the program is holistic, with each team “embedded in a set of essential services that enable access to care beyond the immediate crisis, including 24-hour care and responsive community services linked to urgent psychiatric care, housing and other needs”. according to a statement on the initiative. It is based on a proof of concept developed by the Meadows Institute with a grant from the WW Caruth Jr. Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas. The model was first tested in early 2018 in Dallas and is now part of a national collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Dallas pilot showed how “many mental health emergencies can be handled at the community level rather than by arrest,” the statement said. There, teams consisting of a paramedic, a mental health clinician and a trained police officer were assigned to the district that generated the most mental health 911 calls in the city.
According to the Meadows Institute study, teams responded to 6,679 calls from January 29, 2018 to June 7, 2020. Analysis found that 40% of calls resulted in a connection to community services, such as a referral to health services. health or housing. ; 29% of calls were resolved on the spot with no further assistance required; only 14% of appeals resulted in emergency detention; and 8% of calls resulted in a person being transferred to a hospital or psychiatric facility.
Earlier this year, Dallas expanded the program citywide, adding two new teams and increasing active units from nine three-person units to 15. The goal moving forward is to replicate those results in Galveston.
Other panel members on Thursday included Galveston County Commissioner Stephen Holmes; Charlie Olsen, Galveston Fire Chief; Felicia Jeffery, CEO of the Gulf Coast Center; and Tiffany Russel, Project Director of Mental Health and Justice Partnerships at the Pew Charitable Trust. Craig Brown, Mayor of Galveston, opened the session.
“We are delighted to work with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and several local foundations focused on the best interests of the people of Galveston,” Brown said in a statement. “I’m confident this model of health-focused policing will exemplify how public-private partnerships can make a dramatic difference in the Galveston community.”
As the police chief overseeing the safety of year-round residents and the many tourists who visit the resort community seasonally, Balli said he hopes “the transition to this holistic approach will help prevent encounters.” violence between the police and those with mental illness. crisis.”