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October 22, 2013

Mental health calls on rise for Oneonta police

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Oneonta police respond to a mental health case every other day on average, the department lieutenant said Monday.

The number of calls is increasing, reflecting a trend and prompting a need for increased training, Lt. Douglas Brenner said.

In 2012, Oneonta police answered 185 mental health calls, and with 197 cases to date, Brenner projected the calls would total about 250 this year.

Brenner attributed the rising numbers not only to more calls but also to more-specific record-keeping and a better-educated population that is more willing to call authorities for help.

Nonetheless, the calls put police into emotionally charged situations when an individual is threatening self-harm or injury to others or is highly intoxicated, Brenner said. No officers have been hurt in the cases this year or last year, he said, but they are responding to more calls without more than the basic instruction provided in the police academy.

“That's a red flag in my book,” Brenner said.

However, to help remedy the situation, eight Oneonta Police Department staffers on Wednesday will attend a Crisis Intervention Training Program presented locally by Tri County Forensic Services of Rehabilitation Support Services and NAMI of Otsego County.

About 40 participants are expected from law enforcement agencies, private security and other groups in Otsego, Delaware, Chenango and Schoharie counties, said Susan Matt, Otsego County director of community services, which includes mental health services. Representatives from Hartwick College and the State University College at Oneonta also have registered for the workshop at Brooks House of Bar-B-Q banquet center in Oneonta, she said.

Workshop topics are communicating with people in acute mental health distress; suicide intervention; state mental hygiene law and how it may apply in the field; and emotional safety and survival, which Matt said is to help responders take care of themselves in reaction to traumatic situations. Matt said RSS is paying the estimated $2,500 cost for the workshop.

Matt, who agreed with Brenner on factors leading to the increasing numbers of mental health calls, said the Mental Health clinic and city police have a good relationship in terms of responding to crisis situations and observing patients of multiple calls.

The Otsego County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has advocated for law enforcement to gain skills in responding to crisis calls, especially since Oneonta police started using Taser electric-shock guns, Matt said.

The program will be led by a retired Rochester police sergeant, Eric Weaver, executive director of Overcoming the Darkness, his business that works to reduce stigma and increase understanding toward mental illness.

On Monday, Dr. Celeste Johns, chief of psychiatry at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, responded to questions about mental illness and responding to emergency calls.

"Most data shows that the number of people presenting for emergency psychiatric care is increasing, but a lot of that is due to better identification and more awareness,” Johns said.

“Some of it may be societal as more individuals and families are facing job loss, extended unemployment and financial difficulties,” Johns said. “We have also seen an escalation in substance abuse involving drugs we didn't use to see as much in central New York, such as heroin and prescription pain killers."

Matt said with active-shooter situations in schools and public places in recent years, mental health professionals and the law enforcement community have been striving to learn and understand about factors involved, Matt said.

“People are working much more together with the agenda of personal and community safety,” Matt said. The expected turnout for Wednesday's program is “great,” she said, because though the workshop attendance is free, participants are paid, which is an expense to communities and employers.

Eight officers from the Oneonta Police Department, for example, represents a “huge commitment,” Matt said.

Brenner said the cases he is tracking are state Mental Hygiene Law sections 9.41, regarding emergency admissions when someone with a mental illness who is a threat to self or others; 9.45, regarding involuntary admissions initiated by the county director of community services; and 22.09, which pertains to individuals who are incapacitated by alcohol and/or substances and cannot care for themselves.

Police didn't respond to “that many” mental health calls a decade ago, according to Brenner, who said he noticed the number of calls increasing about four years ago.

Brenner said he has no facts about a theory that cuts in federal funding have resulted in more people with mental illness released into society. But common sense would support such a scenario, he said.

“I don't think the ball is being dropped by mental health professionals,” Brenner said.

Brenner said he began looking more closely at emotional disturbance cases after he became lieutenant in spring of 2012. He said the calls may originate as requests to check on someone's welfare, to assist when someone is emotionally disturbed or in domestic disputes.

A typical call may be from a relative or friend who says a person is having a difficult time and making a reference to self-injury, Brenner said. The police dispatcher will ask if the person has a weapon, has had problems in the past and for a location.

At the scene, an officer would talk with the subject and establish if an intent and means for self-injury were present, Brenner said. In about 95 percent of the calls, the subject threatens self-injury, he said.

Officers want to prevent injury to anyone, Brenner said, and a situation may be resolved without transporting the subject to a hospital.

“There are a million scenarios,” Brenner said. “We take all of these cases seriously.”

Brenner said it isn't uncommon for a subject to resist police action but officers aim to resolve the situation without a criminal arrest for obstruction of governmental administration. The arrests under the mental health law are considered civil actions, he said.

Subjects requiring admission for mental health issues are taken to a certified crisis center, which locally is Bassett Medical Center, Brenner said. Subjects in cases of high intoxication or requiring immediate medical attention are taken to A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta for treatment, he said.

Johns said a first responder, whether law enforcement or someone else, needs to be trained to ask proper questions and to generate the dialogue necessary to let the individual know there is hope and that help is available at a hospital, according to Johns.

“People with mental illness might appear angry, or erratic in their behavior, or even inappropriate,” Johns said. “Awareness of the possibility of a mental illness helps law enforcement on the scene to react calmly and to respond, not to the person's erratic words and behaviors, but to the situation and the person's needs.”

Responders also need training to recognize signs of drug and alcohol use and overdose to get the person help as well as minimize risks to the patient and responders, Johns said.

"Mental health training for law enforcement will also help individuals in crisis avoid the jail setting in that initial emergency when they most need a medical setting,” Johns said, “where they can then be connected to the appropriate mental health services and resources necessary for longer term help."