Police officers are called upon to respond to crises far outside the realm of law enforcement. They’re often the first ones on the scene when a person is overwhelmed by a mental illness or experiencing intense emotional distress.
The Colorado Department of Local Affairs recently awarded the Carbondale Police Department (CPD) a $177,000 grant to engage the support of mental health professionals whenever necessary.
Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling told The Sopris Sun that years ago, if an officer encountered someone experiencing a mental health crisis, the officer’s best option was often to charge that person with a criminal offense in order to put the person in jail, where the person could (hopefully) receive mental health services.
Governor Hickenlooper put an end to that practice in the spring of 2017, signing into law a bill prohibiting the use of jail as a place to house people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, but have not committed a crime.
Around the same time, Hickenlooper approved the Peace Officer Mental Health Grant program, providing funding for police departments to engage the support of mental health professionals. Carbondale is one of 16 Colorado law enforcement agencies to receive the grant, along with Basalt, Eagle County and Rifle.
Continuum of care
CPD will use most of the funding to engage the support of mental health clinicians from the non-profit organization, Aspen Hope Center. While the two groups have been working together for many years, resources have limited the amount of support the Hope Center could provide.
Hope Center’s Executive Director Michelle Muething told The Sun that the impact of this grant will be “huge.” When mental health professionals can connect with people immediately, at the scene of a crisis, Muething explained, they can provide a more effective and efficient mode of service provision overall.
For example, if a police officer encounters someone who is suicidal and a mental health clinician is not immediately available, the officer will transport that person to a hospital emergency room. There, the patient faces an indefinite wait to be seen by an ER physician and undergo a physical exam before being referred to a mental health specialist.
According to Muething, people in distress often display a physical symptom, such as an elevated heart rate, which is rooted in their psychological condition. Although the symptom is likely to disappear once the emotional distress subsides, a physician might order expensive testing, such as an EKG, seeking a physical cause for the symptom. That can lead to an “astronomical” ER bill in addition to a mental health crisis.
Muething also noted that the mental health specialists at the ER have only two options: assess patients as in extreme danger and send them to a psychiatric facility, or release them with instructions to make an appointment with a counselor. The wait time for such appointments is often four to six weeks.
In contrast, the Hope Center provides a “continuum of care,” Muething said, with many options in between the extremes of hospitalization and waiting weeks for a counseling appointment. When a Hope Center clinician can arrive at the site of an incident, the clinician can initiate mental health services immediately, schedule counseling services to begin the very next day, and provide follow-up services until the person’s crisis has subsided.
The second purpose of the state’s mental health grant is to provide counseling for police officers themselves. As Schilling told The Sun, police “see a lot of bad stuff…work weird hours…” and often find it a very stressful job.
Suicide rates among first responders nationwide have been increasing. Recent studies have found that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Carbondale lost one of its own police officers to suicide in 2011.
“Police officers show up at the scene of a crisis … wearing a uniform … in a position of authority…and everyone looks at them like they have the answers to all their problems,” Muething said, “like they’re heroes that can fix anything.” However, the solution is often “beyond the scope of their abilities.”
Muething wants to remove the stigma of counseling among the officers, so that they feel comfortable coming in simply to “off-load” and talk about how stressful their life has been. “Mental health is about daily life struggles,” Muething said. “You don’t need to have a mental illness to be struggling.” She sees the counseling services as a way for officers to “be as healthy and happy as possible to be able to serve our community.”
The CPD grant also includes funding for a 24-hour crisis hotline, expanded training for police officers on mental health topics, and technology for clinicians in the field. The Basalt Police Department will be using their grant funds to engage the support of the Aspen Hope Center as well.
Schilling is hoping that the paperwork necessary for the grant funding will be completed by the end of February. The funding is approved for one year, with the possibility of a renewal for subsequent years.