A hodgepodge of mental health professionals can undermine their effectiveness

Tragically, Najee Seabrooks and Andrew “Drew” Jerome Washington, III are two recent, local examples of individuals who experienced a mental health crisis that involved police, both incidents culminating in the shooting and murder of those they were assigned to serve. and protect.

It is often assumed that someone is dangerous to others when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. Under these circumstances, however, the person in crisis often poses a greater danger to themselves than to others. During a crisis, people are often afraid, confused and frustrated. A display of power often exacerbates feelings of distrust, paranoia and fear, and can cause the person to feel the need to protect themselves. This is what seemed to happen in both the tragic deaths of Drew Washington in Jersey City and Najee Seabrooks in Paterson.

Unless someone has a gun and is actively threatening the lives of other people in public, the police are not the appropriate first response. Even in these more rare incidents, having a mental health professional respond with police would be preferable to police responding alone; an attempt to de-escalate the situation. Even if police receive trauma-informed training, most of their law enforcement training, including instruction to shoot to kill when using your weapon, makes police the wrong profession to respond to mental health crises healthcare.

Common sense tells us that if someone is agitated and anxious, the appearance of police in riot gear is unlikely to help stabilize them, and may make the situation more difficult to negotiate and manage. The person in crisis is often seen by police as a ‘threat’ rather than someone in need of help. As soon as you put the police in that situation with weapons, the chance of a tragic outcome increases.

Given the historic challenges Jersey City has had with emergency services over the years, imposing responsibility for determining which mental health response team to call at what time is a valid cause for concern.

It’s the reason other states have programs in which trained doctors and plainclothes EMTs respond to 911 calls and are as non-threatening as possible; they only ask for police support when necessary. These are the approaches New Jersey should be looking at.

After the Andrew Washington tragedy, Jersey City wanted to address community concerns and quickly put together a Request for Proposals for a municipal program to address mental health crises. However, our state currently has a hodgepodge of mental health response programs that are expected to launch and provide services to Jersey City residents.

The NJ Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services recently issued an RFP that would establish community outreach and response teams for Hudson and Essex counties as part of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline initiative. These teams would consist of a mental health professional and a peer advocate. The recently passed Seabrooks-Washington law requires the creation of community crisis response teams and Jersey City is also listed as one of the pilot cities to host these response teams. Although Jersey City’s mayor has rejected the Attorney General’s “ARRIVE Together” program, in which police and mental health clinicians respond together to mental health crises, that model continues to be discussed and advocated by some individuals in Jersey City.

There are many questions and concerns when it comes to multiple initiatives sponsored by different state departments. For example, when these various response teams are active and a crisis occurs, community members have multiple options for calling; some may call 911, others may call 988 – and this will potentially lead to confusion. How are coordinators trained in these different programs so that they can properly assess the calls? Without state-level coordination of these programs and specialized training for coordinators, the concern is that multiple teams with different approaches will come to the same crisis—without knowing who is in charge and potentially getting in each other’s way. It’s a potential tragedy waiting to happen. It also begs the question: “Can these programs be ‘stitched together’ to cover periods when the amount of funding for one initiative limits the number of hours/days of the week during which response is available?” Given the historic challenges Jersey City has had with emergency services over the years, imposing responsibility for determining which mental health response team to call at what time is a valid cause for concern.

We know that New Jersey will be best served by a statewide program in which the vast majority of people experiencing a mental health crisis can receive outreach services from trained mental health professionals who are the first to respond to the call for help. We call on the Governor, Attorney General, DMHAS leadership, and state legislators to respond accordingly and work together to create a statewide response to mental health crises that is trauma-informed, compassionate, and effective.

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