Cops, counselors team up

Members of the newly formed Crisis Support Team include, from left, Chadd Searcy, a deputy with the Mesa County Sheriff's Department; Christine Stephens and Eric Gustavson, both mental health clinicians with Mind Springs Health; and Megan Eldridge, an officer with the Grand Junction Police Department.

It was midmorning at a Grand Junction business one recent day, and a transient in the area was acting odd.

He was a young man, and the business owner was pretty familiar with him — familiar enough to know that something was off. As some might, the business owner called the police — not to report a crime, but to ask for them to check on the young man.

'(He) said, 'There's a guy, he's transient, he's here a lot, I never have any problems with him, but his behavior's been weird the last week,'" said Grand Junction Police Officer Kristine Gregory. "The shop owner was very open and understanding of the behavioral and mental conditions, so he didn't have any judgment at all. He was really concerned for this citizen."

Had Gregory still been on patrol, she probably wouldn't have followed up on the report herself. But as it happens, the call was a perfect fit for her and her newest partner, Mind Springs Health clinician Eric Gustavson.

Gregory and Gustavson are both assigned to the newly formed Crisis Support Team, which pairs law enforcement officers with mental health care professionals to work with people who are having a mental health or substance abuse crisis when somebody calls the police.

The grant-funded program, which launched July 1, involves both the Grand Junction Police Department and the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, and aims to help get more people connected with services and combat issues like suicide.

"It's a safety net that exists in this community," said Christine Stephens, another clinician assigned to the unit. "It's just really connecting the individuals with them, and encouraging them to engage."

The situation involving the young man at the store was originally reported to the police department's Community Resource Unit, whose officers responded but passed the case along when they couldn't find the young man.

"Eric was able to go down there and talk to the business owner a couple hours later," Gregory said. "The fellow wasn't there, but he got a lot of good information."

When patrol officers came into contact with the transient man a few hours later, the team was able to follow up.

"Eric went out there and chatted with him for a full hour and calmed him down," Gregory said. "He didn't need to go to the hospital. He just wanted to talk and express his frustration."

Both Gustavson and Stephens played a similar role with a Mind Springs crisis response team before joining the multi-agency unit. The difference, they said, is being able to go directly to the scene with a law enforcement officer without delay.

"We're able to go directly to the crisis," Stephens said. "Like pinpoint, boom, we're there. Five minutes, 10 minutes, depending on where we're at."

Bringing mental health care to people while they're still in their homes can also make a difference to that person in crisis.

"Some people say that they feel safe with law enforcement," Gregory said. "We have other people who, the second they see us shut down … because they've been misunderstood in the past, and their behavior's been taken as a criminal act."

On the flip side, the team also meets people with a grounded dislike for Mind Springs and all its staff.

"If they don't want to talk to me, there's still an officer there they can talk to, and vice versa," Gustavson said. The pairing of cop and counselor also provides a check and balance when the person seems to be getting more agitated, Gregory said.

"(The clinicians) might be so into the caretaker role that they're like, 'No, I have to save them,'" she said. "We can be a little more objective and say, 'OK, listen, I need you to back up for their safety, for your safety, for everybody's safety. … We can try again later.'"

In its first month, the team asked the full-time Mind Springs case manager assigned to the unit to follow up in 26 cases. He successfully made contact with 23. Members said they've already seen powerful reactions from people they've worked with. Stephens recalled a call she was sent to involving an 11-year-old boy who had made suicidal statements. By the time she arrived, the boy had gone to a friend's house where it appeared he would be safe, and Stephens had a heart-to-heart with his mother, who was raising three children on her own while earning just over the limit of what would qualify her to receive much-needed benefits.

"She was drowning," Stephens said. "She made the decision to change her job and make lesser pay so that she would be able to help her children get established with the medical care that they needed. … That was pretty amazing."

Gregory, Stephens and Gustavson said they're amazed at how many people don't realize that what is driving their own or their loved one's behavior is an actual illness, and that there are county resources available.

"For those who don't (know about resources), oh my gosh, it's like you can see the weight lift off their shoulders," Stephens said. "They're like, 'Really? That exists?'"

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