DENNIS — The Dennis Police Department has created an in-house Mental Health Task Force (MHTF) to address a substantial increase in mental health-related calls during the past several years.
In the last five years, Dennis police received more than 500 calls for service related to mental health issues, and in the five years before that the number exceeded 600. The numbers have spiked since the 2008 to 2012 period, when just 265 mental health-related calls were answered.
The calls could be about someone having a mental health crisis who needs immediate help, but can’t get to a mental health professional, or from someone on the brink of suicide, said Lt. Peter Benson of the Dennis Police Department.
And although Dennis police officers are given some training to respond to situations concerning mental health, these types of situations are often multi-layered and may need the attention of a mental health professional, Benson said.
The creation of a task force was announced on Dec. 14 and funded with grant money from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. It consists of four civilian mental health practitioners, five members of the department’s Community Crisis Intervention team, and the department’s Family Services Officer, according to Benson.
The team is designed to give people dealing with mental health crises immediate help, but then also conduct follow-up visits and provide referrals to other agencies and resources, according to a post on the department’s Facebook page.
The civilian mental health practitioners have training and experience in issues that include substance abuse disorders, children with mental health issues, and jail diversion. They also have a network of contacts that they can refer people to for assistance, said Benson.
Benson said that he thinks the increased number of calls related to mental health crises is due to reduced stigma in society surrounding mental health issues. People are more willing to reach out for help, he said.
He also said that mental health issues were exacerbated by the pandemic, and that certain times of year, such as the holiday season, could increase anxiety and depression in some people.
According to a CDC report, symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased between April and June of 2020, when compared to 2019. Additionally, the levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were elevated in June 2020. During late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggles with mental health or substance abuse, according to the report.
Other towns on the Cape have also taken steps to strengthen responses involving mental health. The Barnstable and Yarmouth police departments each are slated to receive $60,000 to hire mental health counselors to support police when responding to mental health crisis calls, according to a statement from state Sen. Julian Cyr and state Rep. Kip Diggs. The funds were allocated by the state using federal American Rescue Plan Act monies.
Right now, the main thing a Dennis police officer can do when responding to a mental health crisis is to stabilize the situation, de-escalate it, and transport the person to a facility such as Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, where he or she can see a mental health professional.
This type of response only scratches the surface, said Benson. Many people need additional help or services once they re-enter the community, and that’s what the new approach will offer, he said.
“The way we looked at it is, these people are going to come back to our community, and they’re going to need additional follow-up and services, and that’s what the mental health task force is doing,” said Benson.
Such services could include resources for housing, heat or food assistance, or a follow-up with a professional to get counseling or psychiatric help, or entry into a substance abuse program, said Benson.
A civilian practitioner can ride along with officers to respond to mental health-related calls unless police believe the situation could be volatile, he said.
One of the civilian practitioner’s main tasks is to go along with plainclothes officers to conduct follow-ups with people who previously called for help, to make sure they have access to necessary assistance and resources, or even if they just need someone to talk to, said Benson.
He noted that situations concerning mental health issues can turn volatile if police officers don’t have the proper mental health training, since people can become erratic and panic. That’s why officers nationwide are stressing de-escalation, he said, referring to the practice of talking someone down from crisis and calming them, rather than rushing to take them into custody.
Kathleen Pedini, one of the civilian practitioners on the team who is also the department’s Victim Services Coordinator, said that the department has been inundated in the past year with calls related to mental health, addiction and families in crisis.
One of the main goals of the mental health task force is getting these people and their families the resources they need, she said.
Pedini also advocates for “jail diversion” for people with mental health issues and substance use disorders.
She said that, historically, people who have had mental health issues or substance abuse disorders have been incarcerated, and the aim of the MHTF is to identify those people and help them obtain the services and assistance they need.
“The goal is to get them the help they need, not to punish them,” said Pedini.
Pedini added that the pandemic reduced the availability of mental health resources. Cape Cod Hospital, for example, saw a reduction in the number of available beds for people with mental health or substance use disorders, she said. And since the pandemic simultaneously caused an uptick in mental health-related issues and with substance abuse, it was the “perfect storm.”
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Dennis Police Department creates a Mental Health Task Force (MHTF).