Mental health crises explored

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Residents get tips on how to work with police to de-escalate events

Denton County residents were offered tips this week on how to work with police officers in de-escalating a mental health crisis.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Denton County affiliate hosted a panel discussion at North Central Texas College in Flower Mound, where officers from the Denton and Flower Mound police departments and Denton County sheriff’s deputies urged residents to keep detailed accounts of their friend or loved one who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

In the event that 911 is called and police become involved, residents are encouraged to inform 911 dispatchers that the call is being made in reference to an individual experiencing a mental health crisis. If such information is known, the caller is also encouraged to provide dispatchers with their friend or loved one’s mental health diagnosis, symptoms they’re exhibiting and behavioral history.

Any communication strategies people can use to de-escalate the situation before police arrive is also helpful, officers said.

Panelists also encouraged residents to get their friend or loved one in a neutral environment to receive law enforcement where they’re not storing weapons. Bedrooms, kitchens and garages are dangerous places for officers to confront someone because tools could become deadly weapons, they said.

“Unfortunately … once it gets to the point where you’re calling the police, the response options are very limited,” Denton police Lt. Chris Summitt told the nearly 25 people in attendance at Monday’s panel discussion. “When you walk into a situation where the only person the person can injure is themselves, you have a lot of time to try and de-escalate that situation.

“When you walk into a situation where there are other bystanders around the patient that could also be injured by bodily contact, that kind of forces our hand to try and take control of the person.”

Texas ranks near the bottom in the nation for mental health services funding. In 2012, the Denton Record-Chronicle reported that Denton County had the lowest per capita mental health services funding in the state.

A 2013 United Way of Denton County local mental health needs assessment that was modified in 2014 indicates the county’s state funding for mental health services has slightly increased.

It’s estimated that about 70,000 Denton County residents live with a mental illness. Among that population are approximately 13,400 adults and 5,000 children living with a severe mental illness.

The Denton County MHMR Center offers treatment to those living with a severe mental illness or a developmental disability.

However, it only has the capacity to serve 13 percent of the county’s adults living with severe mental illness and 8 percent of children in the county with a severe mental illness.

In 2015, the Denton Police Department spent nearly “2,400 manhours” responding to mental health calls, Summitt said.

“It’s a beast,” he said. “The process that we have to go through to actually provide treatment of the patient … can be a 12- to 14-hour event for a patrol officer just to get them to the point that they’re a candidate for admission to one of the extremely limited beds that may be available in our county to treat somebody in a condition.”

Officers going through the police academy in Texas are required to take crisis intervention training that gives them some knowledge of addressing a mental health crisis, the officers said.

Officers suggest in addition to sharing background with police about the individual experiencing a mental health crisis that residents also send a photo of the person, said Flower Mound police Capt. Wess Griffin.

Flower Mound officers and police in other local agencies assist in getting people experiencing a mental health crisis committed, he said. If the individual is “not an immediate threat,” officers attempt to help commit the individual through the person’s family. If there’s an immediate threat, MHMR is called to respond to the situation for an evaluation.

Mental health deputies from the sheriff’s office may also be called to either transport the person to the county jail, a mental health facility or state psychiatric hospital for treatment, Griffin said.

“It’s not a perfect system. I wish we had a massive county facility with tons of beds but … we have small resources for what is quickly becoming a very large county,” he said. “We concentrate on law enforcement and not the prevention end.

“We concentrate on the reactive and not the proactive, and that’s something that we all have a responsibility to talk to, in my personal opinion, to talk to our legislators about changing that to move us away from that 47th position [for mental health services funding]. It’s just a matter of when enough of us say we’ve had enough. I think that’s something that’s long overdue in Texas.”

The sheriff’s office has a mental health unit that consists of six investigators who respond to mental health crises 24 hours a day in hospital emergency rooms, residences, businesses and other locations, said Sgt. Cari Coker, who oversees the unit.

The unit is responsible by state statute for transporting people with mental health issues to a treatment center, court and state psychiatric facilities.

The last three years, the unit has experienced “triple-digit growth in emergency apprehensions and detentions,” said Capt. Kevin Clark with the special services division of the sheriff’s office.

Throughout the course of the nearly two-hour panel, officers offered tips and answered questions from the audience about how loved ones can get medication to their mentally ill family and friends in jail; how people can petition the court to have their loved ones hospitalized; what to do when a person becomes delusional; and how officers respond to mentally ill people who are juveniles and who may be homeless.

John Spowart of Lewisville, who attended Monday’s panel, said officers explained well “what the current process is for better or for worse.”

“I think everybody would agree it’s worse, but at the same time it’s the best we can do,” he said. “I really appreciate the stuff these guys do.”

Esther Fidler of Lewisville, immediate past president of NAMI Denton County, said she’s pleased officers are attempting to make things better in dealing with people living with mental illness. There’s evidence of collaboration and progress, she said.

“It’s not perfect,” Fidler said. “It bothers me that funding is still the biggest issue. That’s going to take a lot of advocating. I am just happy that these teams are pushing for better care in Denton County.

“I’d like it all done tomorrow, but I’m going to make myself be patient because I can see progress.”

Jessica Gartin, a case manager with MHMR, said anytime you open up dialogue like what was displayed in Monday’s panel discussion is a move in a positive direction.

“Texas funding for mental health issues is so lacking that it shows sometimes,” she said. “The police departments do all they can do. We do all we can do, but if the funding’s not there, it’s not there.

“But this is a good start to open up dialogue.”

Clark said his ultimate goal would be to see one county facility that has enough beds to treat people with medical and psychological issues and substance abuse issues.

No matter what officers encounter, they would have some place to take people in mental health crisis, similar to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas or John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.

Griffin said positive things are happening in the Mental Health Court, which is assisting in reducing the number of people with mental illness entering county jails.

In June, a quasi-governmental group — known as the Denton County Behavioral Health Leadership Team — was formed to examine how to improve mental health services accessibility and quality.

On multiple occurrences during Monday’s panel, attendees were urged to petition their legislators for additional mental health funding in Denton County.

“At the end of the day, this is about funding,” Clark said.

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.

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