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,