Sarpy County Sheriff Sgt. Rob Hillabrand was at his wits’ end with a suicidal woman.
After trying everything he could to deescalate the situation, he remembered a technique from crisis intervention training.
He asked the woman about her Wellness Recovery Action Plan, also known as WRAP. The plan includes a person’s diagnosis and what medications they’re taking. Then he reiterated that he wasn’t trying to arrest her. He was there to help.
“She dropped the knife and came up the stairs,” he said.
In Sarpy County, helping people with mental illness is a top priority. Among the ways the county is prioritizing mental health:
- Most of the law enforcement officers working in the county are trained in Mental Health First Aid and many have gone through the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program.
- The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office is creating the area’s first Mental Health Unit.
- Sarpy County’s new correctional facility will be built with space to provide mental health care and flexible space for community partners who can provide mental health services on site.
- Sarpy County is working with the Salvation Army’s Emergency Community Support Team and Region 6’s Professional Partner Program to provide support for inmates with mental illness while they are in the county jail as well as after they are released.
- The county is working with Nebraska Medicine to establish a mental health partnership.
- The Sarpy County Board of Commissioners proclaimed this month Mental Health Awareness Month to help shine a light on their commitment to improve mental health care access and availability in Sarpy County.
Hillabrand, who specializes in mental health, said the county’s goals are simple.
“We want to get people the help they need and direct them toward the right path,” he said. “We’re trying to stop incarcerating people with mental illness.”
Training to better serve citizens
The Sheriff’s Office is 100% trained in Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour training that teaches officers how to recognize mental illness and how best to respond to a person who’s suffering from bipolar disorder, depression or otherwise in crisis.
The county’s correctional officers and Public Defender’s Office are also fully trained, as are the Papillion Police Department and La Vista Police Department.
The Bellevue Police Department’s hopes to be fully trained by the end of 2020.
Many of the Deputies at the Sheriff’s Department also completed Crisis Intervention Team training, a more extensive 40-hour course.
These numbers are important because officers respond to mental health-related calls frequently. Hillabrand estimated an officer will respond to two or three mental health-related calls per shift.
La Vista Police Capt. Jeremy Kinsey said officers see more and more calls that involve someone with an underlying mental health or substance abuse issue – or both. Training helps officers identify those issues and react accordingly, he said.
“Years ago, we didn’t have the resources we have now. We may have taken a different approach,” Kinsey said. “But today, we try to talk, make communication and let them know that there’s help available.”
Today, officers can request assistance 24/7 through Heartland Family Service’s ASAP (Assessment, Supporter and Prevention) program, which provides mental health crisis response teams.
Through the program, licensed therapists perform immediate evaluations and give recommendations for next steps. Their work also allows law enforcement to return to service and respond to other calls.
Trisha McArthur, LIMHP, LMHC, the lead therapist with Crisis Response Services, said law enforcement in Sarpy County “do a brilliant job with identifying and actively seeking appropriate assistance with persons in Sarpy County who struggle with a mental illness.”
“Law enforcement are empathetic, and well versed with crisis response team services and the importance of connecting individuals to preventative services in order to hopefully ward off an escalation of mental health symptoms,” McArthur said.
Capt. Tom Dargy with the Bellevue Police Department said that officers have bought into how beneficial the mental health trainings and ASAP therapists are.
“I’m a huge believer in getting these programs up and running,” Dargy said. “It helps officers, as well as citizens.”
“I want citizens to know that we’re trying to serve them as best as possible,” added Officer April Komasinski with the Papillion Police Department.
To ensure that ASAP services remain available during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheriff’s Office worked with Heartland Family Service to utilize telehealth connections.
Honing in on mental health
Hillabrand has focused on mental health for the last two years for the Sheriff’s Office. His work has included following up on people with mental illness who’ve had contact with law enforcement and ensuring they’re getting the services they need.
He also puts on trainings, writes department policies and co-facilitates a course at the Sarpy County jail called interactive journaling, which helps inmates with decision-making.
His work aims to avoid booking a person in jail for a minor misdemeanor like disturbing the peace; he also works to avoid taking the person to an emergency room where they could wait hours to be triaged.
Nationwide, about 2 million people with serious mental illness are incarcerated each year, according to the Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails.
Jail, however, is not the right place for mentally ill people who commit low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors because jail doesn’t treat the person’s underlying issues.
In fact, according to the Stepping Up Initiative, people with mental illness tend to stay in jail longer than those without, and are at higher risk of returning to jail. That revolving door isn’t beneficial for the person with mental illness – or taxpayers.
Hillabrand applauded County Administrator Dan Hoins and Sheriff Jeff Davis for dedicating resources to mental health efforts. He hopes the Mental Health Unit grows.
“I think that speaks volumes on how committed the county is, that they’re willing to create a brand-new unit, something that’s never been done before in this area,” Hillabrand said.
Sarpy County’s leadership on mental health should be commended, said Vicki Maca, director of criminal justice and behavioral health initiatives for Region 6, which works to improve behavioral healthcare in eastern Nebraska.
“In Sarpy County, they have such great energy and their leadership is so committed to how seriously mentally ill people get assistance,” Maca said. “We don’t see that in every county.”