Behavioral health professionals, not MPs, will soon respond to mental health crises in Denver prisons

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Nikki Johnson entered a Denver jail apartment and heard a man screaming about his laundry and refusing to lock himself in his cell.

Johnson, a psychologist and head of mental health services at the Denver Sheriff’s Department, approached the small group of MPs who had gathered near the man’s cell and asked if she could speak to the man, that she knew. With their permission, she told the man that she would like to speak to him if he followed the instructions to lock himself in his cell.

The man did so and Johnson sat down and listened to him let off steam.

“He is upset by various stressors that occur in his life and wants to be heard,” Johnson said. “So I took the extra 10-20 minutes with him and listened to him – that’s really all it took. So that he knew someone was going to listen to him, he was ready to comply with the containment order. “

This is exactly the kind of service Johnson is hoping a new team of mental health professionals she hires for the city’s two prisons will be able to provide. The Denver Sheriff Department plans to hire 12 psychologists, counselors and social workers so that a mental health professional is available 24/7 to help those incarcerated in city prisons who are experiencing health crises. mental.

Department leaders hope the new Crisis Response Team will help defuse crisis situations, minimize the workload of MPs and provide better service to those in prison. Team members will wear khaki polo shirts and pants, not law enforcement uniforms.

“Members of Parliament are trained to ensure the safety and security of the facility and that is the first and foremost task of their job,” Johnson said. “Mental health professionals are trained to be empathetic, to listen, to be calm, to be present. When you bring the two together, we will see more success in these crisis situations. “

Growth in mental health diagnoses

A large percentage of those incarcerated in the two Denver prisons have mental health diagnoses. As of Thursday, 40% of 1,699 people in the two prisons were classified as having a mental health need and 6% were on suicide alert.

Mental health problems and their severity vary widely, Johnson said, and can include schizophrenia, substance-induced psychotic disorders, bipolar disorders, and personality disorders. Johnson hopes his team will be able to provide trauma-informed care in prisons, which can itself cause trauma.

“We’ll assume people have trauma and approach them that way,” Johnson said.

If successful, the program will reduce fights, use of force incidents, assaults on staff and recidivism, Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins said. Diggins also hopes the team will help people successfully switch from more restrictive housing units for people with severe behavior problems to units for the general population.

The percentage of people incarcerated for mental health issues has increased dramatically in the 27 years that Diggins worked in the sheriff’s department, he said. Part of that growth is improved diagnosis of people’s illnesses and more resources to perform those assessments, he said.

“For us, success is about helping them while they are in our care and also helping them make the transition to the community,” he said.

Diggins requested $ 1 million in the ministry’s 2022 budget to pay for the 12 positions allocated to the program. The budget has yet to be approved, but Diggins said he was optimistic there is support in other branches of city government.

The team will include 11 mental health professionals – seven from the downtown jail and four from the county jail – and a supervisor. Johnson has started the hiring process for some of the positions and hopes the team will be up and running in the downtown jail by the end of the year.

Once hired, team members will spend their time inside the prisons getting to know the incarcerated people. They will mainly be assigned to reception and housing units for people with severe mental health needs, but will also work in other areas of the prisons. They will not work in offices or make appointments, but rather spend their days in the accommodation to develop relationships with the people who live there.

“If a crisis does arise, they will be able to step in, help defuse the situation, be available and really have more free time than MPs could have,” Johnson said. “Often MPs themselves manage a housing unit with 64 inmates. So they might not have 10 minutes for this guy to let off steam in court because they escort the nurse to distribute medicine or deliver meals. Not that they don’t want to do it, but they don’t always have time to drop everything and listen. Often times, it is enough for someone to listen and hear them and meet them where they are at that time to prevent a situation from happening.

The team has been one of Johnson’s three major goals since joining the Sheriff’s Department in January. She has also launched a skills restoration program at the county jail and plans to conduct an audit of all mental health services available in the prison system to look for gaps and overlaps.

In the footsteps of STAR

The creation of the team in the prison reflects the launch of the Denver Support Team Assisted Intervention program last year, which was widely acclaimed. The STAR program sends mental health professionals rather than police officers to 911 calls regarding mental health needs or homelessness in an attempt to address social issues with mental health professionals rather than the community. police.

The prison crisis response team will mirror the goals of the STAR program and a handful of prisons across the country have similar programs, Diggins said.

For decades, prison and prison leaders have discussed the mental health needs of the people they care for, but the conversation has really accelerated over the past five or 10 years, said Dr David Stephens, a psychologist specializing in mental health in correctional settings. Better screening has revealed the large percentage of incarcerated people who suffer from trauma, mental illness or brain damage.

“Correctional officers, sheriffs and even mental health professionals are all much more aware of the presence of the mentally ill in correctional systems,” he said. “We need a continued awareness of the pervasiveness of trauma in the community. Meeting these needs will reduce incarceration rates.

Prison administrators need to assess how their building affects the people who live there. Intense, incessant lighting and a lack of sound absorption can lead to deterioration of mental health, he said. All prisons must also provide trauma-informed care.

But the most important way for criminal justice systems to help people with mental health needs is to prevent them from going to jail, Stephens said. Diversion programs that connect people to treatment outside of penal institutions, like Denver’s law enforcement-assisted diversion, and accessible community resources are essential to improving their health, he said.

“Helping them avoid incarceration is probably the best practice,” Stephens said.


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