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Teams a good 1st step to helping area’s mentally ill

Albuquerque Journal - 10/23/2017

Two years and $37.8 million after the Bernalillo County Commission approved a so-called “behavioral health tax” to get mentally ill homeless people off the streets and into programs that can help them lead more productive lives, a new effort with promise is on its way — the fielding next month of Mobile Crisis Teams.

In November teams comprising master’s-level social workers and counselors from St. Martin’s Hope Works (formerly St. Martin’s Hospitality Center) will accompany Albuquerque police officers and Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies responding to 911 calls involving individuals experiencing behavioral health crises. The city and county are splitting the initial $500,000 cost of the contract.

Although this will be a pilot program operating from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday — the times most behavioral health crisis calls are called in to police, according to Katrina Hotrum, the county’s behavioral health director — it can be expanded quickly if it proves successful.

A key component to this new approach — having civilian professionals connect with mentally ill individuals in crisis when and where it’s occurring — eliminates the intimidation factor of forcing them to go to a hospital or jail via police car, then be turned back out onto the streets.

Team members will assess an individual’s mental health needs with an eye on preventing future situations, make referrals and follow up with clients, according to Nevin Marquez, St. Martin’s behavioral health services director.

Besides getting clients immediate help, the approach is expected to lead to fewer hospitalizations and arrests, more treatment and less time that officers will have to spend answering such calls.

“From the very beginning of our work on behavioral health, crisis response services have been a high priority for the community and for the Bernalillo County Commission,” Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said recently. “The death of James Boyd and other tragic encounters between law enforcement and people suffering from mental illness made it clear to policy makers and the public that the burden of the failures of our behavioral health system ha(s) largely fallen on law enforcement. That inspired us to look for a better way.”

Boyd, a schizophrenic homeless man who was camping illegally in the Sandia foothills in March 2014, was fatally shot by two Albuquerque police officers after an hours-long standoff. The goal of the tax was in part to provide a system that would get the next James Boyd down off that mountain safely.

While there is still much to do to fully address the metro area’s problems involving its homeless and mentally ill, Mobile Crisis Teams appear to be a solid step to that goal. It’s important the county and city track the pilot program, gather specifics on holes in the system the teams encounter and make the results public.

 
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