Behavioral Health Unit Sees Success amidst COVID-19 Challenges

Julie Humphreys, 509.622.5868

Thursday, May 14, 2020 at 1:26 p.m.

A joint program with the Spokane Police Department, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, the City of Spokane Valley Police Department, and Frontier Behavioral Health is having a big impact with people suffering from mental health issues. Launched in January 2020, the Regional Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) pairs law enforcement officers with mental health clinicians to reach individuals in crisis.   
Often people with mental health issues have coexisting drug and/or criminal issues. The goal of the BHU is to divert such people from jails and hospitals by offering wrap-around services including counseling and health care access. Addressing the larger, long-term needs of an individual helps ease the strain on the criminal justice system and emergency rooms.  
 “Our mental health clinicians have continued their efforts to direct individuals to resources that support their continued stabilization in our community” says Jan Tokumoto, Chief Operating Officer, Frontier Behavioral Health. 
In the month of April, when the number of people in crisis increased in conjunction with COVID19 restrictions, the Behavioral Health Unit contacted 413 individuals. 89% of the contacts had an outcome other than jail or hospitalization.  Law enforcement did not use force, beyond handcuffing, in any case. 
Spokane Police Department Sgt. Jay Kernkamp of the BHU explains, “By providing services to those in crisis and spending more time on solving the problem, we’re not just putting a Band-Aid on it.  This specialized unit can immediately access the problem, address the need, and link the person in crisis with specific care, significantly reducing the need for potentially unneeded emergency services for behavioral health needs.” 
Kernkamp provides this example: a mentally ill woman calls 911 multiple times a day. She’s convinced people are coming into her apartment and taking her belongings.  The BHU developed a plan to have her journal the incidents she believes are happening instead of calling 911 each time. BHU team members visit the woman weekly and talk with her about the journal entries. She no longer calls 911 and is now receiving additional help from a counselor via weekly telephone calls. This holistic approach by BHU teams also puts them in contact with the woman’s family and children to let them know she is safe.  
“This is one simple example of how the unit works in conjunction with behavioral health to enhance the well-being of one person” says Kernkamp. There are countless other stories. 
Key to the BHU program is the partnership that pairs licensed mental health clinicians with law enforcement in one vehicle when responding to someone in crisis, whether a suicide call, a crime, or otherwise. During the month of April, due to the COVID19 emergency, deputies and officers worked without a clinician in the car but still connected with them by phone and in the office. The result was a continuation of the relationship and collaboration of law enforcement and mental health professions for the best outcome for those in crisis and for the public. 

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