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'A better approach': WellSpan crisis counselors aid police on mental health calls  

'A better approach': WellSpan crisis counselors aid police on mental health calls

When someone is suicidal, has lost control of their emotions, or feels crushed by life's challenges and doesn't know where else to turn, police often get a 911 call. 

Now law enforcement has a skilled ally to accompany them on those calls: WellSpan crisis counselors who work beside police officers in York and Adams counties in responding to mental health emergencies. It is just one way that WellSpan is working to find a better way to offer the right kind of behavioral support at the right time and in the right place in our communities. 

What is a crisis co-responder? 

A crisis co-responder is a WellSpan crisis counselor who works with police on calls involving behavioral health issues. 

The WellSpan counselors offer a rapid, directed response that often defuses incidents and connects people to the right resources, helping them avoid an unnecessary hospital stay or even a prison stay, says Jen Richard, WellSpan crisis intervention manager who oversees the counselors, who are under contract with county mental health/intellectual and developmental disability offices. 

WellSpan crisis counselors are embedded in 11 police departments, with offices in their buildings in communities. They typically are on duty later in the day, when most crisis calls occur, generally between noon and 10 p.m.  

Sometimes the crisis counselors respond along with police to calls or sometimes they respond later to someone in need, after a referral from a police officer. Sometimes someone in need reaches out directly to a crisis counselor, generally after they have had earlier contact with the counselor. 

What types of calls do crisis counselors go out on? Who gets their help? 

Last year, the counselors responded to almost 1,200 incidents involving about 900 people in York and Adams counties. Almost half had more than two mental health diagnoses. About a quarter were under the age of 18. 

More than a quarter of the calls were in response to people who were thinking about or had attempted suicide. Counselors helped with voluntary or involuntary commitments to hospital behavioral health care units when appropriate. 

Counselors also responded to calls where mental illness was causing people to act erratic or violent, feel very depressed or anxious, exhibit paranoid behavior or confusion, or behave in a way that could harm themselves or a family member. 

While most of the incidents were related to mental health concerns, counselors also accompanied police on incidents involving domestic violence or people experiencing homelessness who needed help. 

What happens during a call? 

Police first make sure it is safe for the crisis counselor to be at the scene of the incident. If necessary, the crisis counselor works to calm someone who is out of control. 

The counselor then examines the situation and helps to figure out the next, best steps. Sometimes that can be helped with psychiatric medication, housing information, behavioral health support, or even job or food assistance. 

"We assess safety too," says Angie Alvarez, a WellSpan crisis counselor who works with the York County Regional and the Spring Garden Township police departments. "Are you safe enough so we can get you care without going to the hospital? What kind of care do you need? Are you having a hard time and need someone to listen? We can help with all of that." 

In responding to the immediate situation, the counselor also can deter other crises in the future. More than 100 callers last year had a history of interaction with police, repeatedly calling 911, but after the program began, most – 85 percent – did not have another contact with police in the same year. 

How is a crisis co-responder different than a police officer? 

WellSpan crisis co-responders don't ride in police cars. They don't wear uniforms. They don't have handcuffs and are armed only with their compassion, their training and experience, and their knowledge of community resources. 

They do carry bullet-proof vests but Alvarez, for example, has never used hers. 

Their role is intervention not law enforcement. Both police officers and counselors say that people react differently to someone who arrives at the same time as police officers but looks different and plays a different role. 

"I think it's building a good relationship between the police and the community," says McKenzie Johnson, who works with the Gettysburg Borough and Cumberland Township police departments as well as the state police in Adams County. "To be able to show up in these situations as a community face, rather than a police officer in a uniform, it's just helpful. I think it's a positive change and helps to defuse situations." 

What do police officers think about crisis counselors? 

Spring Garden Township Police Sgt. Alisha Graybill has worked with Angie Alvarez for about the past two years. She says her help has been invaluable for the community, and for the police. 

"I can't even imagine what the past couple of years would have looked like without her," Sgt. Graybill says. "She has been able to provide guidance to families that we would not have been able to offer because we don't know that system and how to navigate it. She has been able to de-escalate situations. She has allowed officers to be available for emergency calls. 

"Some people won't talk to us, but Angie is not wearing all the stuff, not carrying handcuffs or a gun, not a threat. A lot of people have opened up to Angie. She is getting them the connection to services and referrals versus us saying we can call for an ambulance or do a commitment when that may not be best response. It's bringing a better approach to people than we can do alone."