Co-responders and local police settling in to new relationship

Local law enforcement officers and the staff at Mind Springs Health both say a partnership between these two entities in creating a co-responder program for mental health-related calls has been a blessing.

“It’s a great tool to have,” said Sgt. Evan Noble of the Steamboat Springs Police Department. “Anytime that we can bring in a professional in those areas that we’re not specifically trained in, that’s going to benefit our community a lot more.”

Based on figures given to Mind Springs by Steamboat police, a co-responder assisted officers on 86 calls in 2021— about one every four days. 

An approach that has become increasingly popular nationwide after the death of George Floyd in summer 2020, the purpose of the co-responder program is to give mental health professionals an opportunity to assist officers with nonviolent mental health-related calls at an earlier juncture than before.

Previously, mental health professionals would typically have to visit the hospital or jail to treat people experiencing mental health crises.

“The program has been well received in the police department,” Noble said. “It always comes to some sort of successful ending.”

In a contract with both the SSPD and the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, Mind Springs Health provides two full-time crisis clinicians who are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

“The key to being a crisis clinician is that you have to be able and willing when you are on-call to drop everything and respond to that call as quickly as possible” said Gina Toothaker, the program director at Mind Springs Health. 

Toothaker said the two co-responders cover 14-15 days each month. Calls typically go straight to the co-responders without delay, but when the co-responders can’t answer right away, they’re given 15 minutes to respond, which has been a standard in the profession since the days when clinicians had pagers, according to Toothaker.  

The co-responders then have two hours to appear face-to-face, and Toothaker said that’s a time frame her staff has little trouble meeting. She said the typical response time is less than 30 minutes. 

Toothaker made a point to add that people with a diagnosed mental disorder are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. She also praised the Routt County jail, an entity that has shown interest in adding a co-responder to its staff in-house full time.  

“I think there’s just a better understanding that these people have issues and they need help,” said Toothaker. “And our jail here does a really good job of that.”

Noble explained that after certain co-responders stick around for a while, they become familiar to the police officers, which helps create trust between the two entities.

“We can get a heads-up of who it is, and then we can go, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve worked with them on other calls,” he said. “This person’s super good.’”

Though working in the field is nothing new for crisis clinicians, working in tandem with law enforcement is relatively new to their profession. 

Among the scenarios that would prompt a call for a co-responder are suicidial threats, family conflicts, anxiety attacks, psychosis, relationship issues, basic-needs problems and substance-use crises, according to Sarah Valentino, one of the full-time co-responders for Mind Springs. 

When officers respond to a scene that may require a co-responder, they first assess the area’s safety. If they determine there isn’t a crime or medical emergency, they make the call for specialized help.

“Most people in crisis need the same fundamental things,” said Valentino. “To be listened to — not judged — in their most vulnerable state, to be empowered to play a role in their own wellness and recovery, and to be supported in accessing the resources that will get them there.”

Valentino said that because each person’s mental health crisis is a self-defined state, co-responders must be flexible and creative in their approach. She also said there really isn’t a typical co-responder call, but they do respond to lots of calls involving thoughts of suicide.

Since 2000, Routt County has averaged 20 suicides per 100,000 people, higher than the national average of 13.5 suicides per 100,000. 

Valentino said she and the other crisis clinicians see personal autonomy as sacred.

“For most, we will work to reinforce their own strengths and coping skills, that being said, not everyone wants or is ready for help,” said Valentino. “It cannot be forced. In those cases, the best we can do is work toward preventing imminent harm and ensuring that we can meet them where they are at when they are ready.”

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