As state budget cuts and a weakened economy continue to affect the availability of mental health services, it has fallen upon local law enforcement officers, along with volunteer ambulance and EMT's, to step in to provide emergency services for the mentally ill.
Recently, New Milford Police received a call to attend to a woman who was emotionally distressed. Upon arriving at the scene the woman told responding officers Scott Petrie and George Herrero that she was trying to get to the "other world."
According to Police Chief Frank Papapietro, this woman, who was wearing no clothes from the waist down, had driven her car from her boyfriend's home in Philadelphia in an attempt to get to her home in New Milford, Connecticut. However, instead of programming New Milford, Connecticut into her GPS, she mistakenly programmed New Milford, New Jersey, and ended up at a residence on Milford Ave.
Papapietro said that this woman told the officers that she was stuck in “yesterday” and she entered “today” into her GPS in order to travel time.
"Officers removed a large machete from her car and the woman was transported without incident to Bergen Regional Medical Center by the New Milford Volunteer Ambulance Corp.," Papapietro said.
In 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, released a report documenting deep cuts on those living with serious mental illness--State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis. Communities are still dealing with the fallout from these cuts as they cope with trying to locally provide services for those individuals battling mental illness.
Given the severe economic distress many people are currently facing, either from job loss or reduction in pay and benefits, the crisis in mental health care continues to grow as people go without diagnosis and treatment.
In his February 2012 budget speech, Governor Chris Christie said that in the area of mental illness, "I believe we should place the emphasis on providing care in the community and not in an institution. This is not only the most cost effective approach to care, but independent research shows it is the one that will result in the best outcomes."
"The reality of which," one emergency services mental health provider who asked not to be named said, "is that it falls on first responders and local hospitals to deal with." They added that most people they see are without medical insurance, so without appropriate funding, at best, only short term care can be provided.
More likely, "If the person is not an immediate danger to themselves or others, the best we as care providers can do is give them a prescription for an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication and send them home," this provider said.
"There's no doubt that we've seen an increase in the regularity of calls we receive that involve people suffering from mental illness," Papapietro said. "We respond to at least a couple a week."
According to Papapietro there are strict procedures that officers must follow when dealing with those who appear to be mentally ill.
Officers are trained in the police academy to recognize certain signs of mental illness, as well as people under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Often, Papapietro noted, the three are connected and it is the responsibility of the front line responding officers to make a quick assessment if the person is suffering from a mental illness.
Papapietro said that guidelines instruct officers to call Bergen County's Psychiatric Emergency Screening Program help line 262-HELP. This county-wide service, operated by CarePlus NJ, is a 24-hour, 365 days-per-year, countywide hot line and screening program that assesses individuals in emotional crisis. The program is mandated by law and has the authority to hospitalize persons who present a risk of harming themselves, others or property.
262-HELP will send a psychiatric screener to the scene to assess the mental health of the individual the police have been called to assist. However, Papapietro stressed that if there is an immediate threat that the individual will harm themselves or others, police will call the volunteer ambulance corp. to immediately transport the person to Bergen Regional Medical Center for evaluation and treatment.
"It is not uncommon for our officers to be physically injured when trying to assist an individual suffering from severe mental illness," Papapietro said. "This is the side of law enforcement that people don't often see--our role as community caretakers."
And Papapietro stresses that while crime fighting is an essential role of law enforcement, over the course of the last decade officers are spending far more time engaging with the community providing services that extend beyond the enforcement of laws.
"We often get calls from families who have a son, daughter, husband, wife who is mentally ill and they just don't know where to turn," Papapietro said. "So they turn to us."
Papapietro believes that the state of the economy, coupled with the state of the world, have attributed to the increase in people suffering from severe depression that often manifests itself in mental illness.
"We're often called to help direct families and individuals where they can get help," Papapietro said. "Often, our officers are counselors who listen to people's problems and try to appropriately direct them."
Aside from the increase in dealing with people suffering from mental illness, Papapietro said that New Milford police have had to deal with a fair number of suicides, a result, according to many studies, of individuals who have a number of untreated psychiatric disorders.
"Seeing a person with a self-inflicted gun-shot wound, or walking into a room where a person has hanged themselves is something that police officers have to deal with on more occasions than people realize," Papapietro said. "So in addition to dealing with the final results of mental illness, my officers have to carry those violent, fatal images around with them."
"Those are images that stay with you forever," he added. "That's what the men and women on the front line see and deal with every day that the public doesn't often hear about."