Some people call 911 a dozen times or more per month describing emotional upheaval, sometimes reporting visions, voices and even suicidal thoughts.
Police and paramedics who must respond say they are left to triage an escalating mental health crisis that can really only be eased with long-term counseling, medication, case management and meaningful intervention. That’s why Maplewood police and firefighters/paramedics have teamed up to create the city’s first-ever mental health outreach team.
“You don’t realize how many calls are mental health-related,” said Maplewood Officer Emily Burt-McGregor, who estimates half her calls have a mental health component. “A lot of times, crimes tie back to people struggling with mental health issues.”
The team is proactively reaching out to those frequent 911 callers who exhibit symptoms of mental illness and their families, offering to meet regularly to discuss how they can help. Sometimes, it’s connecting people to services. Other times, it’s encouraging them to stick to their already prescribed therapy and medication routines. In all cases, it’s a calmer, safer opportunity to talk through issues than a panicked 911 call.
“We are doing more case management, behind-the-scenes work,” said Maplewood community paramedic Rochelle Hawthorne, who is also trained as a firefighter.
The motivation is to provide real help, lower the number of calls for service and avert those crisis 911 calls where lives are in danger.
“Our goal is for everyone in the community to be healthy and safe,” said Michael Mondor, Maplewood’s chief of emergency medical services.
They join a growing list of communities including St. Paul, Washington County and Minnetonka that are deploying a host of new strategies to help people struggling with mental health issues who call 911. One mental health advocate says it’s a step in the right direction.
“We try to understand what their situation is and what supports they have in place already. We see where those supports and care are falling short,” said Maplewood police Sgt. Mike Dugas. “For those not served, we help connect them with services.”
Some people are skeptical of police and paramedics taking on this expanded role. But Maplewood first responders, who are required to respond to all emergency calls, say it’s an issue they can’t ignore.
“If someone is calling us about it, it’s a police issue,” Burt-McGregor said.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she supports efforts to stabilize the lives of people confronting mental illness. She said several cities and counties are focusing resources on the issue.
“One of the struggles is you can have someone who struggles with mental health but they don’t meet hospitalization level and they are not interested in being treated voluntarily,” Abderholden said.
Abderholden said she hopes community leaders, seeing the benefit of the work now being done by first responders, employ social workers and mental health workers to carry out this work in the future.
“It’s good that it is being done,” Abderholden said. “We’d love to shift that over.”
About a half-dozen Maplewood officers and two community paramedics, who are also trained as firefighters, are part of the program, which was launched in December. They complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training, crisis negotiation training and motivational interviewing—an acknowledgment that this role is about finesse and empathy, not force.
At any given time, they work with about a half-dozen people with mental illness. The team is keeping the group small to provide ample attention, Mondor said.
Hawthorne, who is part of the unit, said she’s happy to be able to finally do more. She said she’s watched people succumb to serious mental illness and deteriorating living conditions over the course of several months and dozens of 911 calls. Some have even died as mental illness overwhelms their ability to take care of basic needs.
Participation is voluntary and it’s not for everyone.
“Our staff has a lot of doors slammed in their faces,” Dugas said.
It’s often family members, desperate for help, who urge their loved one to consider the offer.
“A lot of the people we meet don’t believe they have a problem,” said officer Ashley Bergeron.
When someone does agree to talk, an officer, paramedic or sometimes both meet with that person. They change into their softer uniforms—usually cargo pants and collared pullover shirts. They also set aside some of that law-and-order mind-set.
Bergeron said she eagerly volunteered to be part of the mental health unit. She has a psychology degree from Bethel University. She followed her dad and her two uncles into law enforcement because she wanted to help people.
Her uncle, Maplewood police Sgt. Joseph Bergeron, was killed in the line of duty in 2010. She said she wants to carry on his legacy of kindness.
“I am empathetic and I understand. Mental health has such a stigma that people don’t want to reach out and ask for help,” Bergeron said. “That’s why we are on the job: to help.”