Data, Police and Mental Health: How a Pennsylvania County Helps People in Distress

June 20, 2018 | By Kate Elizabeth Queram

When officials in Franklin County, Pennsylvania began sending a mental health expert into the field with law-enforcement agencies to help people in distress, their goal was to refer 80 patients to local services within two years.

“I am now 13.5 months in the field. I have 233 separate individual referrals,” Kay Martin, community behavioral health liaison and the program’s mental health co-responder, told Route Fifty. “We’ve really learned to think outside the box. We’re people-centered, we’re not service-driven.”

The South County Mental Health Co-Responder Program—named for the service area it encompasses within Franklin County—launched last April as a partnership between the county, community-based health provider Keystone Health, and local law-enforcement agencies in Greencastle, Waynesboro and Washington Township.

Martin, the program’s sole co-responder, embeds with those agencies and accompanies officers on certain calls, typically when a person requires help but doesn’t need to be taken into police custody. (That can mean a caller in mental distress, for example, or a third party requesting a welfare check on a friend or relative.) Once on scene, she begins an assessment to determine the care needed. The result can be an immediate referral to an in-patient facility, but many times simply having Martin there in person is enough to defuse a tense situation and refer a patient to the appropriate community partner for service. Most of what she does involves following up with people she’s spoken to on calls or met in the field.

“I start making phone calls on the spot to get the process initiated, and then we do follow-ups every two weeks for six months,” she said. “By far, the vast majority of what I do is follow-ups.”

Each of the three participating law-enforcement agencies was selected for the program due to its proximity to areas with high suicide rates and relatively low immediate access to mental health services.

“Together, those communities are about 26 percent of the population, and together with another small community they contribute almost 41 percent of the suicides in Franklin County,” said Cori Seilhamer, a mental health program specialist with the county and a certified crisis intervention team coordinator. “Services are limited—there’s only one provider of mental health and drug counseling in that area. County transportation there, though it is improving, is very limited.”

Mental health co-responder programs are increasingly common in law-enforcement agencies across the country, due largely to declines in the resources available to people experiencing mental health problems that have forced police officers and sheriff’s deputies to take on additional responsibilities when answering calls.

“Police officers play a critical role in ensuring that people affected with mental illness do not cycle in and out of homelessness and in out of jails but rather are diverted to rehabilitation,” Joanne Cochran, CEO and president of Keystone Health, told Route Fifty. “We closed a lot of state hospitals around the country and homeless people ended up back on the street, so this is kind of how we got where we are. Police officers are not administering the actual treatment, but they play a huge role.”

The initial goal of the program, funded by a $150,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, was to reduce the number of people languishing in the criminal justice system while suffering from mental illness by referring them to local services that can more adequately address their problems. But the scope has since expanded, Seilhamer said.

“The further we get into it, we find that there are folks who have fallen through the cracks who interact with law enforcement that may or may not have been diagnosed properly,” she said. “Or we find that the issues or support that they need might not be directly related to mental health.”

Officials track and analyze that data to help understand who the program is serving and the circumstances that led them to contact police. In some cases, unemployment can exacerbate existing issues. In other cases, age groups are a factor. Many of Martin’s referrals have been senior citizens, who may simply need help re-engaging with their community.

“One of the things we quickly discovered was that a large amount of the referrals I was getting were from people age 60 and over,” she said. “So we draw on our senior centers and our area agencies on aging. Many are veterans, so we work with agencies that cater to that population as well.”

Program partners hope to expand the initiative in the future, though funding sources are still in the works.

“We have applied for other grants and we do have a back-up plan as far as some different avenues from which we can access dollars. The intent is to continue, it’s just accessing the funds,” Seilhamer said. “The only thing worse than not starting this program would be to start it and then take it away.”

The program will be honored next month with a Justice Public Safety Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties in the category of Criminal Justice and Public Safety. The award honors “innovative, effective county government programs that strengthen services for residents,” according to NACo.

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