Cities to Have Mental Health First Responders

New programs will launch in 2021.

Dec 18, 2020

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An innovative out-of-the-box new program in New York City will send a team of mental health crisis first responders instead of police for mental health 911 calls. This will allow people to get the help they need by the people who are best suited to do so.

The city will have a team of EMS health workers and mental health crisis workers according to a press release from the city. Police would be available for back-up if the situation warranted it. Currently, New York Police Department (NYPD) or the fire department (FDNY) first responders respond to mental health related calls.  

“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in the press release. 

“For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”

A pilot program will run in two communities where the need is greatest beginning in February 2021. A team of trained professionals will help to deescalate mental health situations like suicide attempts, substance abusers, as well as people with serious mental health issues. Sending mental health crisis workers will also free up the police department to take care of serious crime.

The pilot is modeled on the very successful Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene Oregon. Working through the 911 system, teams of paramedics and crisis workers responded to 24,000 calls in 2019 involving a large range of mental health related issues. only 150 cases required police backup.

“This is the first time in our history that health professionals will be the default responders to mental health emergencies, an approach that is more compassionate and effective for better long-term outcomes,” said the city’s first lady Chirlane McCray who is an advocate for mental health issues.

McCray told CNN that the new program will treat mental health issues as health issues and not as a public safety concern and that tens of thousands of NYPD officers have been trained in crisis intervention to look for signs of emotional distress.

There have been mixed reviews about the new program. Mental health advocates are cautiously optimistic. Matt Kudish, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC), said the program sounds like it is going in the right direction but that he prefers not involving the police at all.

Police organizations are concerned that EMTs and mental health workers could be put at risk. Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice said that he had responded to hundreds of calls during his career where people who were mentally ill became violent. They can, “turn on a dime,” he said.

Other cities are also looking to implement similar programs to reduce deadly interactions between police and people in crisis – many of them people of color – especially in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One such city is Anchorage in Alaska.

Anchorage’s 2021 operating budget includes a provision to fund a mobile crisis team according to Alaska News Source. Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who pushed to create this mental health first responders’ team, saw it as a way to approach mental health emergencies from a new direction.

“Instead of a police officer, in an instance of crisis that seems more behavioral health-related, we send a paramedic and a behavioral health clinician,” Zalentel told Alaska News Source. The team would be used to deescalate the situation and address immediate medical issues.

While the team is still in development and won’t begin handling calls in January 2021, Michael Riley, a firefighter, and paramedic with the Anchorage Fire Department, said that the police department will still handle every mental health call until the program begins and will continue to be called for any matter involving violence.

Other US cities including Los Angeles,  San Francisco, Denver, and Albuquerque, New Mexico are also implementing similar programs according to CNN. This is a big step in the right direction for advocating for the rights of people suffering from mental health and stopping the plague of people dying at the hands of police officers who are not trained to handle these types of interactions.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.