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News / Health / Clark County Health

Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s program lets deputies call mental health providers for help on calls

Co-Responder Program allows deputies to call on Sea Mar professionals to offer treatment services, housing or counseling assistance

By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter, and
Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 2, 2024, 6:08am

Since December, Clark County sheriff’s deputies have had a new partner in addressing mental health needs — the root of many of their calls for service.

The agency’s Co-Responder Program allows deputies to call on Sea Mar’s mental health providers when they encounter someone who could benefit from treatment services, housing assistance, counseling and other assistance. The providers offer their expertise, while deputies ensure everyone stays safe and can take action if someone is violating the law.

The sheriff’s office says the partnership is part of a national push toward teaming law enforcement with mental health providers. The partnership also aims to free up deputies’ time, both by allowing deputies to move on from a call and reducing the likelihood they’ll be called back out for the same issue once the person gets the help they need.

In the program’s first 90 days, 47 calls were referred to co-responders. More than half of those turned to outreach. The average time from the start of the call to a provider’s arrival on scene was 30 minutes, according to the sheriff’s office.

Laura Nichols, Sea Mar’s behavioral health program manager, said in an email to The Columbian the provider’s motivation to partner with the sheriff’s office was to support deputies while interacting with people experiencing mental health crises.

“We want to ensure that when someone is having a psychotic episode, mental health crisis, feeling suicidal or extremely alone, that they know that someone cares,” Nichols said.

Although deputies are still getting used to having Sea Mar providers available to them, Sgt. Fred Neiman said they are regularly taking advantage of the providers’ expertise. Deputies can also connect family members or other loved ones of people in crisis with mental health providers.

“There’s a good percentage of our calls for service that there is an underlying behavioral health — whether it’s mental health or houselessness or substance abuse issues,” Neiman said. “So we really see this like an opportunity to have some interventions that are more than just criminal interventions.”

Connecting local resources

Sgt. Adam Beck pointed to an all-too-familiar situation that deputies encountered recently. They arrested a suspect on domestic violence allegations. But, with their partner off to jail, the victim didn’t know where to stay or what to do next. So deputies called the mental health providers at Sea Mar.

“Their life had kind of been turned around,” Beck said of the victim. “And in the past that would be a situation where a deputy would try and assist them, maybe getting a hotel, and then that would kind of be it.

“And in this situation, we were able to call the co-responders out, establish a connection, talk about resources, and then the co-responders were also able to follow up with that person throughout the week and kind of help them get their life back on track, or at least kind of have a plan moving forward,” Beck said.

The sergeant said it was rewarding to know deputies were able to ensure that person was better supported.

Get Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, community resources can be reached through 988 at the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or through the Southwest Washington Crisis Line at 1-800-626-8137.

There is a variety of resources in the area, Beck said, and it can be difficult for deputies to know which services would be most beneficial to each person’s situation and how to best direct them to get help.

“Deputies deal with people in crisis quite often and are good at talking with people and trying to problem-solve, but they really don’t have the mental health training that the mobile crisis units have, and they’re not as in touch … with the local resources,” Beck said.

Carelon Behavioral Health is funding the program, with the financial help of the Clark County mental health sales tax. The Clark County Council recently allocated the funds.

Challenges, long-term goals

Sea Mar officials hope they can bring more services to the community and a better understanding of mental health challenges in the field, according to Behavioral Health Clinical Supervisor Shahna Creagan.

“This also reduces the vicarious and secondary trauma that first responders experience — having us on scene to respond and assist them,” Creagan said.

One of the main challenges the co-response team has encountered during the 90-day period is most services are closed after regular business hours.

“Our teams see a gap in care surrounding the needs of folks who are houseless. Many homeless outreach teams have been created to meet the needs of folks; however, all of these programs operate mostly during daytime hours,” Creagan said.

“This leaves us unable to help someone at midnight who is cold and wet and has no place to go to seek shelter,” Creagan continued. “There is a huge need for homeless outreach services that are 24/7, and we can imagine a world where they are embedded into our county’s crisis system.”

Nichols said she knows the sheriff’s office receives a large number of mental health-related calls, yet, not all of the calls rise to the threshold of a true mental health crisis.

“We have been working with (deputies) to do our best to broaden our scope of the services that we provide in order to bridge the gap for the community and ensure that individuals get their needs met,” Nichols said.

Other regional examples

This isn’t the first partnership of its kind in the area.

The Vancouver Police Department has worked with Sea Mar for about four years. The health provider also began working with Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue in summer 2023, according to Sea Mar.

The sheriff’s office modeled its program after Vancouver’s, in part, to have a standard approach.

But Beck said the sheriff’s office made some changes. For example, he said the county’s partnership with Sea Mar allows mental health providers to make outgoing calls to people who had contacted the sheriff’s office.

“We found a need where maybe a deputy or a co-responder doesn’t need to or wouldn’t respond in a situation, but perhaps somebody can benefit from a phone call,” Beck said.

If the program continues to be a success, the sheriff’s office hopes to expand it, both in terms of the hours it’s accessible and frequency of referrals.

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“We’re actually very fortunate in the area to have a lot of good community resources in the behavioral health fields,” Neiman said. “I think that one of the goals, at least in my mind, of the program is to utilize more of those resources or get people in touch with more of those resources that potentially have a positive impact on their lives.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.