Police are ‘last resort’ for mental health issues; helping people in crisis can be a challenge

BREMERTON — “Mental health-related issues are now the majority of our job,” said Steven Strachan, Bremerton’s chief of police.

“Family members call looking for ‘help’ because of very dangerous and threatening behavior, but they don’t know what to do,” he said.

But providing that help is far from simple. Strachan said part of that is the changing expectations from the public.

“If any person suffers from mental health issues, it seems to suggest that they present no danger to anyone, and they should just be helped,” Strachan explained. “But no one defines what that means. The danger presented to their families and the public are minimized, and there is often little or no ‘help’ to be accessed, so we end up dealing with the same person again and again.”

Kelly Meade, one of Bremerton Police Department’s crisis intervention officers, said in 2016 alone, there have been 182 incidences of mental health calls.

“One of the biggest challenges that we have is the lack of dedicated beds to mental health facilities, so that the people who really need the services for an involuntary treatment can actually receive them,” Meade said.

“Another issue that we’re having is, when we arrest somebody or interact with somebody, we really have just two different choices: take them to the emergency room for a mental health evaluation, or we can take them to jail if their actions are criminal.”

However, if they’re taken to jail, Meade said the jail staff and court system have a “habit” of releasing the defendant, claiming it’s a mental health issue, but “the mental health side said they’re fine, their actions are actually criminal. But nobody ever deals with them.”

This can create a revolving door of missteps. Someone has a mental breakdown and unfortunately endangers themselves or others, the police pick them up and take them to the hospital or jail, depending on the situation, only for them to be released without actually receiving the help they may need, starting the cycle over again.

Rochelle Doan, chief advancement officer with Kitsap Mental Health Services, called this situation “the difficult, challenging gray area.”

“Unless we find ourselves at the emergency room, most of us decide when we want to see our health care provider or not,” Doan said. “We decide if we want an annual physical or not. Seeking help for any form of mental illness is, in most cases, a choice.

“The exception is when a person is in imminent danger of harming themselves or another,” she said. “This threshold for detaining someone for treatment at a psychiatric evaluation and treatment facility is set very high by the courts, because involuntarily detaining someone deprives them of their civil liberties, not a right we give away easily in a free society.”

She said only a specially designated mental health professional (DMHP) can legally detain someone involuntarily for mental health issues. When someone is detained, a judge will review the case within three days to decide if the involuntary detention will continue, or if evidence warrants the patient being discharged and released.

“Unless we recognize we need help, and we decide we want help, we might not make an appointment for our mental health, especially if we feel uncomfortable or even stigmatized just by doing so,” Doan said. “Yet every year, about one in five families is affected by someone in their family experiencing a mental health concern.”

She added that when symptoms of psychosis begin to present, it can be much more difficult for a person to recognize that they need help. However, of those that do receive help, “over 70 percent will recover from their mental illness, and carry on with their usual activities of daily life, some with continued levels of supports and medication management.”

The police do what they can. Meade said there currently are seven crisis intervention officers in the BPD, and two more will be joining the ranks soon. Strachan said every officer receives at least eight hours of crisis intervention training — and many officers have over 40 hours of training. He said officers are trained to “approach with a reduced confrontation or any perception of presenting a threat; we de-escalate and try to find the best solution.”

“Our responses and training have gotten much better,” Strachan said, “but I believe the numbers of people and the severity of issues we are seeing has gotten much worse. It is indicative of the gaps and lack of resources in the mental health system, and we are the ‘last resort’ when there is no place else.”

In 2017, a crisis triage center will be opening in Kitsap County, adding 32 more healthcare beds, 16 for mental health illnesses, 16 for substance abuse disorders. The center will be a voluntary care facility.

Meade said that in 2018, DMHPs will gain the right to diagnose not only mental illnesses, but also substance abuse disorders, which will allow them to treat both issues.

“That really doesn’t alleviate the problem of beds that are going to be necessary to provide treatment,” Meade said, though the crisis triage center will provide some help in that area.

Doan said, “These last three years, there are so many more people interested in and supporting prevention, early intervention, outpatient, acute care and housing for persons affected by symptoms of mental illness and symptoms of substance use disorders. If we keep working together in this way for a system of care and full continuum of services, Kitsap County will be an (example) for other communities.

Another way mental health care has improved in recent years was the 2013 Medicaid expansion, Doan said.

“At KMHS, this has meant a 30-percent increase in the number of people able to receive our services,” she said.

In 2013, KMHS served 5,272 patients. In 2015, that number increased to 6,353, and Doan said they expect even greater numbers for 2016.

“Unfortunately, the funding has not followed suit at the same pace, and it has left the community mental health agencies throughout the state struggling,” she said.

However, scientific advancements have led to more people being diagnosed with mental illness at younger ages, and receiving help.

“There is so much help available to people who voluntarily seek treatment for serious mental illnesses, and are willing to participate in treatment,” Doan said. “There is also acute care available 24/7 for persons who are able to be involuntarily detained due to imminent intent to harm self or others. However, this is a legal action and the threshold for removing a person’s rights is very high.”

Some resources available in Kitsap County include:

n Kitsap Mental Health Services Access Center: Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5455 Almira Drive NE, Bremerton. The access center accepts walk-in appointments for children or adults seeking first-time mental health services. Contact the access center at 360-405-4010.

n Kitsap Mental Health general information: Call KMHS’s general information like from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 360-373-5031. Toll-free lines: For Bainbridge Island to the main campus, call 206-694-4655; for North Kitsap to the main campus, call 360-535-5400.

n Crisis Clinic of Peninsulas: contact The 24/7 clinic for crisis intervention, information and referral services, and supportive listening for people experiencing emotional distress, at 360-479-3033.

n Crisis Response Team: The CRT is a group of designated mental health professionals who can involuntarily detain, mandated to provide “least restrictive” alternatives while keeping patients safe. Contact them at their 24/7 number, 360-373-3425.

Michelle Beahm is a reporter for the Central Kitsap Reporter and Bremerton Patriot. She can be reached at mbeahm@soundpublishing.com.