Who Should Respond to Mental Health Calls?

Law Enforcement, Mental Health Workers, or Both?

To many people, it seems that with every passing year, there are more and more problems that law enforcement has placed on their shoulders. Handling individuals with mental health disorders in crisis is one of the problems that is widely recognized as a significant struggle from the perspective of law enforcement and mental health. In addition, in the last several years, highly publicized tragedies have garnered major negative coverage for law enforcement in the media and the general public.

The actual percentage of 911 calls involving mental health or substance abuse crises is hard to calculate as many departments don’t obtain or retain follow-up information related to emergency call categorization. This is a significant problem when trying to secure funding or to show that special programs are needed, as data is required to show the need.

Some programs are working on ways to track data more effectively, either at the dispatcher level or at the response level. One option for monitoring data in this way is to use Julota software to streamline all levels of data, maintain track of community needs, and guide resources to where they are needed most.

Despite the difficulty in keeping track of data, some nationwide studies have been undertaken and have found that, at minimum, 20% of police calls involve a behavioral health crisis.  A nationwide survey of over 2000 senior law enforcement officials found that 70% agreed that the amount of time spent on mental health calls had increased, and 84% agreed that mental health-related calls, generally, had risen over their careers.

In traditional law enforcement models, officers are responsible for all non-medical emergencies in the community. Officers respond to calls about everything, from individuals saying they are suicidal to significant shootouts.

The Benefits of Co-Responder Team Response

Co-responder teams work with and within law enforcement offices to assist with crises attributed to mental health or substance use disorders. These teams consist of mental health professionals with law enforcement officers trained to manage these crises appropriately.

Individually law enforcement and mental health clinicians can successfully respond to crisis calls; however, having both parties involved helps the call run much smoother when they work as a team.  Just as medical emergencies require a medical professional response, public safety emergencies require law enforcement response, and mental health emergencies require a mental health professional response; the problem is that until someone arrives on scene, sometimes it can be hard to decide which type of emergency is going on from the dispatch office.

There is a reason all of these professions require extensive training and ongoing continuing education to maintain certification or licensure. There is extensive knowledge needed for each job. Working together is the best path.

Co- Responder Programs have Faster Response

In traditional law enforcement crisis response models, when an officer arrives on scene and finds that the individual may need a mental or behavioral evaluation and perhaps immediate treatment help. The officer then has to transport the individual, who is still in crisis, to either the police station, hospital, or another evaluation center.

In this model, the time from contact to evaluation could be multiple hours. However, with Co-Responder teams, the mental health professional is with the officer on scene and can begin assessment as soon as they make contact with the individual. This expedites the process of evaluation and treatment.

Law enforcement professionals may not only struggle with handling individuals with mental health crises appropriately, but it will also take them much longer to determine the severity of the situation and how to best manage it.  Attending to mental health crisis calls can potentially take hours of the officer’s time and take one or more officers off the streets until the situation is resolved.

If one were to monetize this situation, every hour the officer focuses on a mental health call is an hour lost doing more effective and efficient law enforcement work. On the other hand, a mental health professional who is more comfortable and trained in managing the situation and what the available resources are could complete the same tasks in significantly less time due to the level of training and their comfort level with the case.

Co- Responder Programs Improved De-escalation Success

Additionally, co-responder teams have improved success with de-escalation. When individuals who have had interactions with teams were interviewed later about the experience, they spoke highly of the complementary roles of the team members and the importance of the supportive approach in gaining trust and successfully de-escalating the situation.

This improved de-escalation success makes logical sense if you consider the benefit of having multiple viewpoints looking at the same crisis simultaneously. Of course, no individual will have the same perspective as another, but various individuals trying to help another solve a problem are more likely to come to a better understanding of what the individual in crisis needs.

Decrease in Involuntary Hospitalization

Co-responder programs also improve hospitalization utilization. In some cases, this may mean that an individual is diverted from hospitalization and receives information about support in the community. In other cases, this may look like a conversation about what the individual needs and how agreeing to a brief inpatient stay can help them restabilize or begin recovery.

This facet of co-responder success cannot be understated. Individuals agreeing to hospitalization tend to have much better success while in the program and fewer chances of relapse into crisis. The mental health clinician is better prepared to talk to the individual in crisis about what an inpatient program can offer them and help diminish any fears the individual may have about it.

Cost Effectiveness of Co-Responder Programs

Taxpayer funding goes to support many, if not all, community programs. It is of the utmost importance to best use funding in the most efficient manner possible. Co- responder programs place officers and mental health workers on the same team, which means that regardless of the crisis going on

An estimated 56% of those individuals could be treated more effectively in a mental health setting. In addition, an estimated 85% of individuals in the justice system require substance abuse treatment, alongside the evidence that individuals who complete mental health programs have much lower rates of recidivism when compared to those who go to prison; it is easy to see that having a co-responder actively involved in diverting appropriate cases to different treatment rather than arrests is a win-win for everyone involved.

The costs of arrest and imprisonment far outweigh the costs of providing appropriate services, especially when recidivism is considered.  Using co-responder teams helps achieve this aim in many more cases than traditional law enforcement services.

Improved Community Resources Collaboration

The problem with many communities trying to serve citizens with significant mental health needs without a co-responder program is the considerable lack of communication between entities and all critical information that is kept separate. Bridging the divide and sharing viewpoints is a significant key to success. Co-responder programs bridge this divide by having law enforcement officers and mental health clinicians working hand in hand, sharing the responsibility.

Another important reason for the co-responder program’s success is that sharing the responsibility of caring for the community is the only way to serve any goal. The goal becomes easier to reach when more people are involved in the same purpose. Each individual becomes responsible for less and, in this instance, can become more specialized to serve the community in their own area in a better way.

Co-responder programs integrate the help of emergency medical services with law enforcement and mental health services. This merger requires teamwork and open communication that benefits the community. One way to ensure open communication is through a cloud-based information-sharing platform that maintains security while allowing open data communication. One such platform is Julota.

Julota is completely HIPAA-/mental health (42 CFR part 2)-/Criminal Justice Information System- compliant. Additionally, Julota can interface with any law enforcement CAD system.  Due to these reasons and others, it is the perfect complement to any community attempting to build a well-connected and successful program.

Law enforcement’s stated goal is to serve and protect their community. However, the nature of various community needs complicates this mission. For example, mental health struggles and substance abuse are on the rise worldwide, partly due to untreated mental health struggles and partly due to a lack of education and resources in communities. Yet, in traditional community models, all crises fall squarely on the shoulders of overstretched law enforcement officers.

The co-responder model allows these responsibilities to be spread to the other hands in the community who have the expertise to share. As a result, it will lessen the burden on all professionals involved, and the road to success will be faster for the individuals served. This makes it preferable to models where each part of the system handles things alone. This is why using co-responder teams is the best plan for any area.