Responders face more calls involving mental health issues

ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — At an Attleboro private school, police are called when an emotionally disturbed student begins assaulting people and breaking windows, one after the other.

In Norton, a man has to be coaxed down after climbing onto the roof of an apartment complex.

At a South Attleboro mental health facility, a man eludes attendants and climbs onto the roof, then jumps to his death.

In an increasing number of communities, people in serious emotional crisis are a troublesome and growing problem, say first-responders and local public health officials.

While people suffering from mental illness is nothing new, Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney said his officers are responding to many more mental health and crisis-related incidents than they used to.

“We’re getting everything from people who are suicidal, to people who hear voices, to people who have dual mental health diagnoses,” Heagney said. “There’s a huge upswing.”

In response, Attleboro police have put numerous officers through specialized training to help them deal with mental health crises.

Other departments are also expanding their training, or are planning to do so.

In Attleboro, the reports of people in crisis in the past year, alone, have been stunning.

From January through Nov. 9, 2014, the Attleboro Fire Department dispatched an ambulance for crisis evaluations 322 times, or 9 percent of all ambulance runs, according to Deputy Fire Chief Tim Burch.

During the same period in 2015, there were 402 crisis evaluations — an increase of 24 percent.

In North Attleboro, Police Chief John Reilly says his department is also confronted with a rising tide of crisis calls.

“There’s been a significant increase,” said Reilly, who acknowledged it’s not clear what’s causing the upsurge.

North Attleboro Fire Chief Ted Joubert says the number of crisis-related calls at his department are climbing at the rate of about 12 percent a year.

While not every community reports a surge in mental health-related complaints, local police and social service programs are re-tooling their response to put emphasis on intervention and treatment, rather than simply locking up people who lurch out of control.

Mansfield Police Chief Ronald Sellon, who is adding crisis intervention training for some of his officers, said police accept their increased role in helping people and families affected by mental illness.

“A pair of handcuffs isn’t the only answer,” Sellon said. “The attitude now is more one of, if this were your son or daughter, how would you want someone else to try to help them?”

Chiefs like Norton’s Brian Clark say their departments are continuing to explore new ways to respond and help people in crisis, and is working closely with departments in Attleboro and Mansfield. One possibility is for area departments to seek grants that would allow them to share the services of a mental health clinician.

“We don’t want to arrest people. We want to direct them into the system where they can get help,” Clark said.

People in crisis aren’t a challenge just for Southeastern Massachusetts police.

According to a fact sheet produced by the Department of Mental Health, it’s estimated that 7 percent to 10 percent of all police calls involve a person with a mental disorder, and up to 31 percent of people in U.S. jails or prisons have a mental illness.

Local chiefs recently conferred with state officials to discuss the problem and to plan additional training.

The Attleboro and North Attleboro departments plan to begin a joint training program in the near future, Reilly said.

June Fleischmann, an outreach worker for the Attleboro Health Department, is part of a Community Crisis Intervention Team formed three years ago with members from the police, health care providers, the courts and schools to coordinate services for the emotionally or mentally troubled.

Fleischmann said a number of factors, from economic and family issues to substance abuse, contribute to the number of people suffering from mental disorders and personal crises.

But, methods for treating them have vastly changed.

Prior to the 1980s, the state operated a network of facilities where people suffering from mental illness were often institutionalized. Most of those institutions were closed or downsized as the emphasis shifted to community-based treatment.

But, a shortage of primary care physicians, lack of transportation to treatment centers and fragmented insurance coverage for mental health services and prescriptions has made it more difficult for many to obtain care and long-term follow-up, Fleischmann said.

While many acknowledge gaps in treatment of the mentally ill, state officials point with optimism to an evolving, flexible array of services to link mental health services with police, fire and social service agencies who are often the first to encounter those in crisis.

So-called jail diversion programs, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, are centered on strategic emergency service centers, where those in crisis can be evaluated, stabilized and referred into community-based treatment.

A key component of the state’s response is specialized training for police officers to help them recognize and respond to mental crisis situations. So far, more than 100 Attleboro police, school, court and health care workers have received formal training through the state-funded Community Crisis Intervention Team based in Taunton.

The state has established 64 regional emergency service programs where clinicians can evaluate those suffering from a mental health-related or other crises and provide stabilization and referrals. One such state-run program in Norton serves the communities of Attleboro, Berkley, Dighton, Lakeville, Mansfield, Middleboro, North Attleboro, Norton, Raynham, Rehoboth, Seekonk and Taunton.

A similar program in Norwood serves the Foxboro area.

Besides stationary offices where crisis patients can be seen, emergency service programs can also send mobile teams to the scene of a crisis to evaluate someone struggling with mental illness.

To support such programs, the Department of Mental Health recently awarded $1.9 million in grants to Massachusetts police departments to fund additional training and create crisis intervention teams that serve as clearing houses matching the mentally ill with sources of counseling and support.

Assistant DMH Commissioner for Forensic Services Dr. Debra Pinals said the objective of working with police as well as community resources is to divert people in crisis who might otherwise be arrested, and channel them into treatment.

From 2011 to 2013 there were more than 2,100 diversions, according to the DMH website. A comparison with 2014-2015 figures would be difficult because of the growth of the program, Pinals said.

Police have been quick to update their methods in dealing with troubled people, Pinals said.

“We’re very pleased with the willingness of police to take part in training,” she said.

Glen Green, assistant vice president for behavioral health at Riverside Community Care, which provides crisis services in Norfolk County, said police agencies have been flexible in working with service providers to provide help for troubled people — in some cases allowing mental health workers to embed with officers in crisis situations.

“Police are more sophisticated in their approach now,” he said. “There’s a lot more emphasis on things like mental health first aid.”

While the scourge of opioid addiction and the spiraling number of heroin-related deaths in Massachusetts have received greater media attention in the past few years, mental illness and suicide are close rivals in terms of lives lost and economic costs.

In Massachusetts, a state with the nation’s third-lowest suicide rate, 624 people took their own lives in 2012, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That’s almost as many as the 668 who died that year from overdoses.

According to the DPH, almost half of those who committed suicide in 2012 suffered from an existing mental health problem.

Nationally, the toll is even greater. More than 40,000 people die each year by suicide. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates the economic cost of untreated mental illness at more than $100 billion each year in the United States.

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Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com

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