Plan for emergency treatment on agenda

Balto. County Council expected to approve mental health crisis team

Could reduce reliance on 911

April 16, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's health and police departments are teaming up on an ambitious initiative to provide better emergency mental health treatment.

The County Council is expected to approve tonight $1.56 million for a program that county documents say will "fill existing service gaps and reduce the reliance on the 911 system and hospital emergency rooms."

The venture will create a 24-hour mental health hot line and pair a plainclothes police officer with a social worker to form a full-time "mobile crisis team" that will respond to police calls.

Decades of deinstitutionalization have returned large numbers of patients to communities from isolated settings. A growing reliance on medical treatments to supplement or replace therapy has created another problem: patients who become disoriented or dangerous when they don't take their medication.

For years, police officers have served as the front-line response in mental-health emergencies. The county wants to change the way such emergencies are handled.

Police prefer to spend their time on criminal activity for which they are better trained, and health professionals don't want to make criminals out of those who need medical treatment.

"It is really an emerging national trend in behavioral health," said Jeffrey J. Carswell, vice president of marketing and corporate development for The Affiliated Sante Group Inc., the Silver Spring nonprofit corporation chosen to develop and implement the county program. "In more and more states and places, you are seeing these pop up everywhere."

The group manages similar programs in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

If the council approves the program, the Sante Group plans to set up an operations center and hot line in a White Marsh office by June 18. Officials expect the office to receive 3,000 calls per year.

Perhaps the most visible component of the initiative will be the crisis team: a police officer and a health professional who will respond to 911 calls. Initially, two teams will work a combined 15 hours daily in the Essex-Dundalk area. The county plans to add teams in the Woodlawn-Arbutus area.

Six officers will receive five weeks of specialized training beginning next month, and health workers will be trained to deal with dangerous situations encountered by police, said police Lt. Mel Blizzard, a program coordinator.

"We need those people as teams, to know what each other's limitations are. It's the meshing of the two areas of expertise," he said.

Baltimore County health professionals "did a fair amount of research both locally and nationally," before creating the program, said Robert P. Blankfeld, director of the county health department's bureau of mental health.

A well-publicized program in Berkeley, Calif., sends clinicians to aid patrol officers. In Memphis, Tenn., about one-fifth of the police department receives training in mental health treatment.

"We are sort of doing a hybrid," Blankfeld said. "We're excited about that. The police officer can back up the social worker, and the social worker can back up the police officer, each having their own area of expertise."

Other components of the program include an in-home follow-up intervention team; immediate after-hours clinic care through a contract with Franklin Square Hospital Center in Rossville; a disaster response team; and continuing police and community education.

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