Local task force connects mental health organizations

Published 3:59 pm Thursday, December 15, 2011

Polk County is once again taking measures into its own hands concerning mental health and substance abuse services.
The Polk County Mental Health Task Force has been meeting monthly for almost a year after officials recognized issues had arisen among all organizations that come into contact with patients in need.
County magistrate Lionel Gilbert updated the Polk County Board of Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 5 about the task force and how it has helped communications between law enforcement and other agencies, including St. Luke’s Hospital, the department of social services (DSS), the Polk Wellness Center, Family Preservation Services and Western Highlands.
“None of the entities knew what each other were up against,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said Becky Brodar, outreach coordinator for St. Luke’s Center of Behavioral Medicine, was the first to recognize the need to form a task force.
Gilbert said it became clear that many of the frustrations in assisting mental health and substance abuse patients were caused by lack of knowledge of the many laws, rules and regulations.
Some of the problem locally is patients under age 55 must be transferred to another hospital or a state agency other than St. Luke’s, and being accepted into those facilities could take days or longer.
Lack of beds in such facilities is a major problem. Broughton Hospital in Morganton, N.C., for example, went from nearly 600 beds to about 80 beds in recent years after state budget cuts, Gilbert said.
“All of it hinges on the loss of state funds for mental health,” said Gilbert.
Local law enforcement officers at times must take patients suffering from mental health or substance abuse illnesses to St. Luke’s, after which the hospital must find the patient a space at a participating hospital. If the patient doesn’t have Medicaid or private insurance, a bed at a state hospital must be found, Gilbert said.
Other issues include involuntary commitments that are often necessary and patients who become combative while waiting to be admitted to a facility. In those cases, law enforcement has to respond. It is also up to local law enforcement to transfer patients to hospitals, some of which are far away throughout the state.
The task force created a pamphlet giving information for law enforcement officers to use in dealing with situations in which mental illness or substance abuse may be an issue. The pamphlet, called the “Law Enforcement as First Responder Mental Health Protocol and Assessment,” is referred to as the “pink list.” It includes a checklist for officials to use in dealing with a person who could be suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues.
The first item on the list is for the officer to ensure the scene is safe, then to determine whether or not a threat exists. The officer then must determine if the person’s actions are a result of mental illness and/or substance abuse in order to determine if a therapist/organization needs to be contacted or if criminal charges are applicable.
On the back of the checklist are phone numbers for behavioral health providers, DSS and the county magistrate office.
“[The checklist] is a tool for [law enforcement officers],” said Polk County Commissioner Cindy Walker. “It’s so simple but it’s so needed. We’re pulling everybody together to get everybody where they need to be in the safest, healthiest way.”
Polk resident Katharine Smith said the piece of pink paper is a great gift to the community. She said working in mental health can be a very scary business because it’s unclear with behavior alone what you may be dealing with.
“There’s not an officer in the world who wants to go out and deal with these things,” said Smith. “We are all very lucky we have such a task force in this county.”
Gilbert said he doesn’t know of any other task force like Polk’s in other counties.
“What has happened is all the entities have come together and learned each other’s roles,” Gilbert said. “And it’s really helped tremendously.”
North Carolina reformed mental health services almost a decade ago and mandated that counties join local management entities. Polk joined Western Highlands in 2002, along with the counties of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey.

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