The importance of investing in crisis care for mental health calls

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13 Investigates introduced you to Charleen Hunter in this video. Her serious psychiatric illness led police to handcuff her, tase her and carry her headfirst from her second-story apartment.

It is not easy to watch the bodycam video from Hunter’s encounter with Stillwater police last fall. She admits she is embarrassed.

However, coming forward, she says, is the only way to make a difference.

The video still sends a shiver down Charleen Hunter’s spine. Stillwater police responded to her apartment in the fall of 2021, as she spirals out of control. Experiencing yet another bipolar induced psychotic episode.

“It’s easy for me to take myself out and look at it as a different person, that person in the video is a very, very lost, scared person.”

It was not the first time Hunter’s erratic behavior prompted a call to the police. There were five or six prior incidents between April and September 2021.

According to Hunter, in the beginning, there were some positive outcomes.

“I had one officer sit with me at my kitchen table and listened to me talk for ½ hour. I had another one for 45 minutes at my house, ‘It’s OK Charleen. We have got to do this.’ They took their time and talking is everything,” she said.

However, the last encounter turned ugly, quickly.

“They seemed less prepared as time went on it didn’t seem they knew how to handle it, they didn’t know how to handle a mentally ill person,” said husband Ryan Hunter.

“I believe if it’s a mental health crisis, a mental health advocate should be coming out. They are much more equipped and knowledgeable on how to handle the situation to calm a person down and know the right things to say,” Hunter said.

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Charleen and Ryan are not alone in their assessment. In fact, SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration agrees.

“They state that is it unacceptable and unsafe for police to service as the de facto mental health mobile crisis system and that the mere presence of police vehicles and armed officers during these calls can often escalate the situation,” Daniela Gilbert said.

Daniela Gilbert is the Director of Redefining Public Safety at the Vera Institute for Justice in New York City. She said the research is clear: the vast majority of people who are incarcerated, injured, or killed by police are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Gilbert also said many communities have effective alternatives.

In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, has spent decades using civilian mental health experts and peers responders. Those are people who have lived with behavioral mental health challenges.

In 2019, CAHOOTS responded to 18,000 and reached out for police backup only 300 times.

A similar program called STAR began in Denver this past February. Civilian responders have taken 2,700 calls so far, without a single call for police backup.

Closer to home, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department’s pilot program – ACCORD – has already seen some success.

“When the police get called, they’re expected to be social workers, counselors, you name it. We’re not. We go through minimal training for that. Then we get out there and we have a mission. It’s to keep people safe. The ACCORD Program helps us with that mission,” Sheriff Craig Apple said.

“There is a recognition among police themselves that police are asked to do too much and civilian response programs allow them to focus on the kinds of situations they are better trained to handle related to the actual crime while empowering behavioral health experts to deliver care and support to people with unmet behavioral health needs,” Gilbert said.

Those peer responders, the people who have had real-life experience with mental or behavioral health challenges, are particularly effective in connecting to people in a mental health crisis.

Hunter said that is exactly the kind of work she’s ready to do.

“If that means going out to crises with people who better understand somebody in crisis than somebody who has gone through it,” she said.

Both Charleen and her husband, Ryan, say they hope no one else goes through what she has.

“She was just sick she just needed help, the right help,” Ryan said.

The Vera Institute of Justice also suggests the new 988 suicide and crisis lifeline as an effective alternative.

13 Investigates reached out to the Stillwater Police, but have not heard back so far.