The benefits of Community Response Teams
By Hannah Minick • Guest Columnist | To say that we are currently living in unprecedented times is an understatement, and it is absolutely true. If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me, it is that we are all connected and what affects one of us affects all of us. As we have learned, the time period we are in requires innovative and collaborative community solutions as we move forward together, through the multitude of issues and challenges we collectively face. I believe it is imperative for our community, Haywood County, to continue to proactively implement evidence-based community interventions.
In 2016 a research project authored by Norman G. Hoffman, Albert M. Kopak, and Alyssa L. Raggio — all associated with Western Carolina University — that was conducted in the Haywood County jail revealed that 85 percent of people who were incarcerated met criteria for a substance use disorder. The study found that 48 percent of people who were incarcerated met indicators for post-traumatic stress disorder and 34.6 percent met diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. People with mental health and/or substance use disorders are largely over-represented in the county jail.
The over-representation of people with mental health and/or substance use disorders in jail is not specific to Haywood County. In the United States, over 12 million people are booked into county jails each year, and over half of those people meet criteria for mental health and/or substance use disorder. Additionally, the number of people with mental health and substance use issues is exponentially rising as a further result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The purpose of this letter is to make a plea to our county commissioners and public officials to implement a Community Response Team (CRT). Community Response Teams are evidence-based community interventions that are proven to improve health outcomes for communities and for people who need mental health and/or substance use interventions through multidisciplinary crisis response teams.
Communities across the nation have started to use CRTs to respond to 911 and emergency calls. While each CRT is unique to fit the needs of individual communities, common elements of the team include a fire fighter/first responder who can provide medical care, a behavioral health clinician who provides crisis stabilization and care planning, and a law enforcement official who provides safety and handles law enforcement issues. The entire team responds to 911 and emergency calls together, bringing their individual expertise to provide comprehensive crisis response. Although many communities have three-person teams with a firefighter, behavioral health clinician and law enforcement officials, some communities have larger teams that include peer support, community paramedics and program managers.
Communities that have implemented CRT’s track data, and evidence shows increases in public safety as well as greater numbers of people connected to appropriate levels of care. They have also witnessed fewer overdoses, significant drops in the use of the emergency department, a reduction in inappropriate use of community resources, decreases in arrests and lower rates of suicide.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department, for example, was experiencing 1,400 calls per year and 98 percent of those calls resulted in people going to the emergency room. In 2014, they implemented a CRT that functioned two days a week for 10-hour days and over the next year they saw a reduction in the number of suicides and the number of calls that resulted in people going to the emergency department dropped from 98 percent to 6 percent. The success was so great that they implemented a second CRT to fill in the gaps. Another community reported that 97 percent of emergency calls did not result in someone being arrested or going to jail.
The comprehensive, judgement-free community-based responses have been effective in working with people and have resulted in increasing access to community services.
Haywood County’s history has proven that as a county we are innovative, growth-oriented and willing to implement pilot programs and use evidence-based practices to inform community interventions. It is clear that community interventions to support law enforcement and people entering the county jail are needed, and a CRT is an option to seriously consider that could improve the overall health, wellness, and quality of life for our entire community.