The right intervention at the right time by the right person. That’s the motto for the Johnson County, Kansas Mental Health Co-Responder program. Started in 2011, the program acts as one of the Johnson County Mental Health Center
(JCMHC) emergency services teams. It works in collaboration with law enforcement by sending a mental health professional onsite when officers respond to a call where a mental health issue has been identified. It is estimated that two million people with mental illness
are booked into jails each year. In order to avoid unnecessary arrests or trips to the emergency department (ED), the co-responder works alongside law enforcement by engaging with the individual and conducting an assessment onsite. Co-responders then follow up with the individual to either ensure the crisis has been settled or to discuss local treatment options. The outcome: avoidance of incarceration or a trip to the ED.
Co-responders are clinicians who are employed through JCMHC, however, they are fully embedded into the law enforcement agency. Responders work out of police stations throughout the county. Just like officers, they monitor the radio for calls. If there is a mental health situation, co-responders can look up the individual in their Netsmart electronic health record (EHR) and see if they have any history with JCMHC or any other medical documentation. HIPPA regulations allow for information to be shared during a crisis situation, therefore the co-responders can relay any necessary information and collaborate with officers to equip everyone for the call.
“By marrying a mental health professional with a law enforcement officer, we can help with a mental health crisis and avoid jail with treatment instead,” Mental Health Co-Responder Team Lead, Jessica Murphy, said. “In addition, we can deescalate the situation and determine if, and which, services are necessary.”
As certified mental health providers, the co-responders are professionally trained to engage and asses the individual, just like they would in the ED. This onsite approach saves the individual money by avoiding a hospital bill, preventing unnecessary incarceration and reducing repeat law enforcement calls. For example, if the crisis is resolved, it is less likely to have a repeat call or more contact with the law enforcement regarding that individual. It’s important to note that not every situation a co-responder is called to is specific to a mental health issue.
“When determining if a co-responder is needed, we try to not make it too specific,” Murphy said. “We say anything above the neck, anything they know it not physical. In some cases, they have dementia or an intellectual incapability. I have really coached my team that if we can make a difference in this person’s life, then we can take the referral.”
Prior to the creation of the program, the criminal justice advisory council made up of mental health and correction facility stakeholders got together and created a map of all the encounters a person with mental illness have with law enforcement. Their goal was similar to the co-responders’ today: keep people with mental illness safe, out of jail and out of the ED.
“The first touch point an individual has is typically with law enforcement,” Murphy said. “Even though we have training for officers to handle this, we knew we could take it one step further to appropriately and successfully respond to mental health crises. That’s how the co-responders program was born.”
After receiving a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2010, Johnson County officially launched the co-responder program in Olathe, Kansas. Since its creation, the response team has expanded from one to 10 members, serving in 12 police departments and one school in 14 different cities. The co-responder program has assisted more than 23,000 Johnson County residents, with 6,534 of those being in 2018 alone. The program’s growth in the Johnson County community has inspired other counties and states across the country to initiate similar practices in their own law enforcement agencies. In response to an outpouring of inquiries and questions regarding the co-responder program, JCMHC is hosting a national summit led by Murphy, where law enforcement agencies across the country can come and learn best practices and discuss plans to roll this program out in other communities.
“So many people were reaching out to Jessica about what we’re doing here,” JCMHC Communications Specialist, Keith Davenport, said. “This summit is in response to all of the interest we’ve had about this program. We want to do our part to help get similar programs moving across the country.”
Although outreach in response has been high, the program’s biggest benefits hit closest to home. In 2018, the program was able to complete 235 ED diversions and 79 incarceration diversions. Not only do co-responders divert unnecessary ED visits and prevent incarcerations, they also work to build a partnership and sense of unity with law enforcement and the mental health center. Murphy said the program empowers officers to better understand mental health in relation to emergency calls.
“Officers are coming to us asking about an individual, if they were able to get help,” Murphy said. “It ignites their compassion; they’ve always cared, but for so long they didn’t really have insight to what was happening with those individuals after the fact. Now, there is a better sense of control, knowing people are getting the help they need.”
Most of all, the co-responder program has allowed for JCMHC to achieve its ultimate goal: to seek and serve more individuals than ever before.
“The mental health center helps so many people, and this program allows us to help many more because it reaches people who may not have come through our doors on their own,” Murphy said. “We’re able to cast our net wider. We want to help everyone we can, and this has helped us reach that goal immensely.”
September is Suicide Prevention Month, and the co-responders and JCMHC plan to honor the month by continuing their work, which includes reaching out to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. When the facility is notified of a suicide, they send a condolence card to the family on behalf of JCMHC and the police department. Inside the card, there is a Survivors of Suicide (SOS) booklet, both of which are financed by the police department. In addition to the condolence card, JCMHC sets them up with a peer who also has lost a loved one to suicide. They also offer to visit the survived individual’s home to meet with them and check in periodically.
“We’ve always tried to follow up after a loved one has completed suicide, because their own risk of suicide goes up afterward,” Murphy said. “We can be preventative here. So far, it’s bee really well-received by everyone, which lets us know we’re making a real difference in people’s lives.”