Mental Health Response Team: Medical Care Instead of Jail

By Sheriff Staff

It is not uncommon for individuals suffering from mental illness or in an emotional crisis to have contact with law enforcement. Washington County Sheriff Deputy Tyler Whitely states, “It wasn’t until I began working patrol that I realized how much mental health issues are a constant part of patrol life.” Across the country many of these individuals often end up in jail.

In 2011 the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Mental Health Department initiated the Mental Health Response Team – a pilot program designed to provide medical care, versus jail, to individuals in a mental health crisis. The program, which placed a deputy and clinician together in a patrol car, quickly saw positive results and has since been expanded to include four dedicated deputies and clinicians.

In 2014 the team responded to 3,247 calls, most of which involved medical, rather than traditional law enforcement solutions. This unique program offers optimum care: a rapid (9-1-1) law enforcement response with intervention from a mental health clinician. As a team there is more opportunity for problem solving on scene and minimizing the risk of a situation escalating. Washington County CMHP Director Kristin Burke, LCSW states, “The deputy and the clinician each bring critical skills to an incident. It’s valuable for the deputy to have a clinician on scene, and safer for a clinician to be with a deputy.”

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Ron Medlock who oversees the program agrees. “The Mental Health Response Team is a valuable tool. It provides skilled resources that can slow a situation down, resulting in lower use of force.” In addition to responding to an immediate crisis, the team also follows-up with individuals to ensure they are getting connected to the services and support they need.

The Mental Health Response Team is not only for situations involving mental illness. Medlock explained. “The team also assists individuals in an emotional crisis who might be acting out or feeling suicidal. The clinicians can provide coping techniques to help them avoid hurting themselves or the community.”

Funding for the Mental Health Response Team is provided for by the Washington County Public Safety Levy. This levy expires in June 2016. This November, Washington County voters will consider Measure 34-236, a local option levy that would renew the current Public Safety Levy.