Sheriff’s Unit To Tackle Mental Health Repercussions Of Pandemic

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — The coronavirus didn’t simply introduce a new pathogen into society. It brought along a host of new problems and exacerbated existing ones that the country will be left to deal with long after the coronavirus symptoms have passed.

They might not be visible under a microscope, but accompanying the pandemic are a host of mental health issues. Isolation, job loss, financial hardships, learning difficulties, drug abuse and domestic violence go hand in hand with an increase in anxiety, fear, panic attacks, physical outbursts, depression, anger and hopelessness caused by the pandemic.

For the deputies at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, these problems aren’t new. Deputies have long been dealing with drug abusers committing crimes of desperation, jobless families members taking out their frustrations on their spouses, and lonely, unstable people threatening to kill themselves or others.

But with the coronavirus pandemic, deputies trained to keep order and investigate crimes have also taken on the roles of social worker, family mediator and peacekeeper, said Master Deputy Tobias Smith, who’s spent 24 years dealing with mental health calls for the sheriff’s office.

In a typical year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office receives 1.6 million calls from the public and other agencies. Of those, 540,000 calls come through the sheriff’s 911 emergency lines.

Deputies have no way of knowing which 911 call will lead to a volatile situation that could turn deadly.

But now the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office will fight fire with sympathy and understanding thanks to the newly formed Behavioral Resources Unit.

Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the formation of the new Behavioral Resources Unit at a news conference Monday.

The unit, made up of deputies, licensed mental health counselors and licensed clinical social workers, will focus on identifying people who repeatedly come into contact with law enforcement due to mental health issues or homelessness.

The Behavioral Resources Unit will work one on one with these people, connect them with the services they need before crisis in the hopes of keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

Smith said it’s not unusual for deputies to get a call about a person acting strangely due to a mental health problem. But, until now, the sheriff’s office’s only resource was to use the Baker Act to involuntarily hold the person in a psychiatric facility. A few days later, the deputy would see the person back on the streets.

The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971 (Florida Statute 394), commonly known as the “Baker Act,” allows the involuntary institutionalization and examination of a mentally ill person who is behaving erratically or presenting a danger to themselves or others.

Oftentimes, the behavior is caused by their refusal to take or refill prescribed medication, or follow up with mandatory counseling sessions. Since many are homeless or transient, there’s no way for social services to follow up with the person.

“Some have been Baker Acted 20 to 30 times,” Smith said. “If we can get them into some more effective treatment, it would go a long way to mitigating the calls for service.”

From Jan. 1, 2018, through Oct. 19, more than 10,000 people were involuntarily held at mental health facility in Hillsborough County under the Baker Act. Of those, 1,204 people were placed under a Baker Act more than once.

“Mental health issues don’t discriminate,” said Chronister. “They affect people in all walks of life, and it’s one of law enforcement’s biggest challenges.”

“You can’t Baker Act your way out of this problem,” said Smith.

He said temporarily holding an unstable person in a psychiatric facility for a few days won’t address the heart of the problem. Instead, it’s going to take someone with a big heart.

That’s the purpose of the Behavioral Resources Unit, which has been officially working since July, said Chronister.

The unit is already making a difference, he said. There was one 50-year-old man who deputies had come in contact with more than 100 times due to his mental health problems.

“Now, with the new Behavioral Resources Unit, the team meets with him on a regular basis and has connected him with resources to help him stay healthy and stay out of the criminal justice system,” said Chronister.

“With the counselors and social workers on the team, we’re tied in directly with the service providers, and we know what help to ask for,” said Sgt Duane Benton, Behavioral Resources Unit supervisor.”Many times, people don’t get help because they simply don’t know what to ask for.”

To ensure they have consistency and an opportunity to build a trusting relationship, mentally ill people will be paired with a case manager.

“They’ll be doing the kind of work that a detective does when he works a case,” said Benton. “They’ll look at the family, problems going on in the person’s life and how they’re dealing with issues. We’re simply trying to use different resources and a different approach to make a difference one person at a time.”

The other advantage of the unit is more obvious, said Chronister, showing a video of social workers speaking to the 50-year-old habitual offender Chronister previously mentioned.

The counselors and social workers look much like the people they’re trying to help. Wearing jeans and T-shirts, they don’t present the imposing figure that a deputy can present when he knocks on a door in full uniform with a gun on his belt.

“They see someone in uniform show up with all of the gear, and they get turned off,” said Smith. “They’re more willing to communicate with these social workers.”

Lauren Alston, behavior case manager for the unit, has no illusions about miraculously turning around the lives of the residents she’ll be helping. She knows it’s going to take people who genuinely care, who have the ability to build trust in a population that is perpetually paranoid and the unrelenting determination to help those who refuse to help themselves.

At the same time, she said working with the sheriff’s office gives counselors and social workers a huge advantage they previously lacked.

“Law enforcement sees the homeless and people with drug issues or mental problems before the nonprofit and private sector comes into contact with them,” she said. “So this will allow us to get in on the ground floor.”

As a result, she said she didn’t think twice about signing up for the new unit.

“It was really more a question of who was going to help people who are hurting, and I wanted that person to be me,” she said.

Social workers and counselors meet casually in a parking lot with a 50-year-old man who has been admitted to psychiatric facilities under the Baker Act more than 100 times.

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch

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