How the Greenville Police Department plans to keep mental health patients out of the emergency room and jail

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Captain Stacey Owens of the Greenville Police Department. Photo by Will Crooks.

Capt. Stacey Owens of the Greenville Police Department is no stranger to the dilemma officers face when they respond to calls involving people with a mental illness.

In addition to leading the department’s professional standards division, Owens has spent the past eight years coordinating a crisis intervention training (CIT) program for officers. The 40-hour program, which is provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, teaches officers how to recognize the common signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to appropriately respond to people experiencing psychiatric crises.

Since 2011, approximately 154 of the 197 officers at the Greenville Police Department have completed the program. The majority of the officers who are trained in CIT are uniform patrol, warrant, and school resource officers, according to Owens. About four to six of those officers are able to respond to calls at any given time. Unfortunately, officers currently have limited options when responding to a call that involves someone who is suffering from a mental illness or going through a mental health crisis.

“Everyone with a mental illness doesn’t belong in an emergency room or jail, but those two facilities are where the majority of individuals with mental illness end up going,” Owens said. “Until the center opens, officers are limited to the emergency room for after-hour mental evaluations. However, once Greenville Shared Solutions opens, it will give police officers a new alternative to an after-hour crisis stabilization center.”

The Greenville Police Department has partnered with the Greenville Mental Health Center, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and various other groups to open a clinic that provides evaluation, treatment, and temporary shelter for mental health patients who are experiencing a crisis, according to Owens.

The clinic, named Greenville Shared Solutions, will be located in a 4,000-square-foot facility near the Greenville Health System’s main campus. It will be funded with about $300,000 a year each from Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, Greenville Health System, and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

“We don’t expect the clinic to be a panacea for the entire problem, but it should help us provide more appropriate care for some individuals who are dealing with a mental health or substance abuse crisis,” said Dr. Al Edwards, executive director of the Greenville Mental Health Center. “It should also decrease the unnecessary traffic that we’re seeing in emergency rooms and jails.”

About 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. The outcome, however, is similar for people who visit the emergency room with a mental illness.

“Psychiatric patients wait in the emergency department for hours and even days for a bed, which delays the psychiatric care they so desperately need,” said Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “It also leads to delays in care and diminished resources for other emergency patients. The emergency department has become the dumping ground for these vulnerable patients who have been abandoned by every other part of the health care system.”

In the beginning, Greenville Shared Solutions will not be able to take referrals from the general public until the center is able to expand, according to Owens. Officers with the Greenville Police Department will instead respond to calls for individuals suffering from mental illness and determine whether the person should be sent to the center for evaluation.

“The only way into the clinic is through the referral of police officers or Greenville Mental Health,” Owens said. “In addition, persons who are in need of medical treatment, or threaten bodily harm to themselves or are suicidal will continue to be treated or evaluated at the emergency room.”

Edwards said each person who is sent to the clinic will undergo a drug screen and blood test to determine their overall health. They will then be evaluated by a GHS resident or master’s level clinician from the Greenville Mental Health Center. People dealing with a substance abuse crisis may also be required to meet with a staffer from the Phoenix Center, which offers addiction recovery services.

While some patients may return home after undergoing their evaluation, others may need medication or counseling, according to Edwards. All patients, however, will be assigned a case manager to help them identify the assistance they need.

Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville also plans to open a shelter at the clinic that will house and feed up to eight men and 10 women. The shelter will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Edwards. But patients will stay at the shelter for only three to five days while a case manager finds a long-term housing arrangement. A security guard will be stationed at the shelter, and GHS police have agreed to serve as a backup if needed.

“In the global continuum of care for the homeless and for those experiencing crisis, a short-term crisis shelter is a necessary addition to the spectrum of care,” said Ryan Duerk, vice president of adult ministries at Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville.

“Often the police are called into a crisis situation and an individual is placed into one of three solutions — a hospital, jail, or the Rescue Mission. Many times due to the crisis, none of those three choices are the appropriate choice, which means that some individuals who are too sick for the shelter wind up in the shelter. Some individuals who are not sick enough for the hospital wind up in the hospital, and some without a good fit in the first two choices wind up incarcerated. This is bad for all three of those places,” Duerk added.

Greenville Shared Solutions is expected to open this summer, according to Edwards.

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