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Brookhaven Police partner with specialists after uptick in mental health crisis calls

"We're actually trying to get them the help they need, instead of people with mental health issues being arrested for misdemeanor charges all the time."

BROOKHAVEN, Ga. — It's a growing trend in metro Atlanta and across the country: mental health experts joining police in their response to certain 911 calls. 

Brookhaven Police is one such department that formed a special team in October to improve responses to such crises, following a wave of new mental health-related calls happening during the pandemic. 

"It could be on the street, at a convenience store, in the home," licensed counselor Victoria Williams said. "Anywhere from young children having episodes, behavioral concerns to individuals having anxiety in their homes. We also have a good population of homeless people who are having their own mental health or substance abuse needs."

Williams, who works with Behavioral Health Link, is one of several clinicians on rotation with Brookhaven Police Department's crisis intervention team. The team is based on a co-responder model where police, clinicians and other first responders collaborate to help those having a mental health crisis get treatment rather than place individuals in the criminal justice system due to illness-related behaviors.

11Alive's Liza Lucas joined the team in the field as they responded to those calls. An hour into her shift, Williams was dispatched to a Brookhaven neighborhood where responding police officer Flynn had been called to the scene of a man reportedly experiencing delusions. 

"It's good for us to give people a solution, instead of just band-aiding the problem," Flynn said. "We're actually trying to get them the help they need, instead of people with mental health issues being arrested for misdemeanor charges all the time."

That approach is focused on 'help not handcuffs,' according to Kim Jones with the Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"In many instances people with a mental health condition are treated as criminals in cuffs," Jones explained. "And we really want to see this treated just like we would treat somebody with a physical health condition."

More than 1.4 million Georgians have a mental health condition, according to NAMI data. That's more than twice the population of Atlanta.

"One out of four people throughout Georgia are going to experience a mental health problem" Jones said. "So it's probably going to be somebody's friend of mine, a friend of yours or a family member, and how would we want them to be treated? We would want everybody to be treated with help. That's why people call 911." 

Officer Flynn also explained that such partnerships between police and mental health specialists also free up resources so police can focus on their primary job of safety. Meanwhile, clinicians can deal with intervention and treatment. Williams summed up the alternative approach as one that takes team cooperation.

"It's about us working together because our community is large, and there are a lot of emerging health concerns especially in the pandemic," she said.

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