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Vermont's Dept. Of Public Safety Has Hired Its First-Ever Director Of Mental Health Programs

A photo of a green Vermont State Police cruiser in front of a state police barracks sign.
Vermont State Police
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Flickr
The Vermont Department of Public Safety has hired its first-ever director of mental health programs.

Modern-day policing and public safety is changing, as the country re-thinks the way scarce resources are allocated to police budgets, mental health and addiction workers, and other social services.

Vermont's Department of Public Safety is responding to that change by hiring its first ever-director of mental health programs.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Mourning Fox, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, the former deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, and the first director of Mental Health Programs with the Department of Public Safety. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: We hear things like “mental health” and “crisis management” discussed in this evolution in public safety and policing. Can you explain what crisis negotiation is? And what does it mean, for the average Vermonter, who interacts with a law enforcement officer?

Mourning Fox: I think there's generally stigma throughout our country, and throughout the world, with the label of mental health. And someone has a mental health emergency and, quite frequently, people will point fingers, going, “Well, that's not me.”

The reality is, we all have crisis moments; we all have situations where things become overwhelming for us, for one reason or another. And so that's typically been called a “mental health crisis.” But I just want to be clear: that's not indicative of someone having a diagnosable mental illness, per se. And so I prefer [the term] “crisis response.” Because I could include things like a mental illness, or a developmental disability, or substance use disorder, or just things got overwhelming.

"What we're talking about in 'crisis negotiating' and having 'crisis specialists' work with the state police, are folks who are more attuned, and trained to help manage someone dealing with a crisis, help de-escalate a situation, bring down kind of that emotional intensity."
Mourning Fox, director of Mental Health Programs with the Department of Public Safety

What we're really talking about here is someone who is experiencing some type of crisis in their life, and someone has called for some help. And quite frequently, those calls come in to 9-1-1, and law enforcement is dispatched.

Really, what we're talking about in “crisis negotiating” and having “crisis specialists” work with the state police, are folks who are more attuned, and trained to help manage someone dealing with a crisis, help de-escalate a situation, bring down kind of that emotional intensity, and then help connect them to services and supports to better meet their needs.

Traditionally, a law enforcement response results in things like incarceration, or involuntary hospitalization. And what we're really trying to do here [is] shift that paradigm a little bit, and have a response that's more at the level of the need of the individual, and/or the family and the community.

Let's talk about how this would work, in a practical sense. You say as an early goal for this position, you would like to see mental health professionals embedded within each of the 10 state police barracks. Would this position be responding to calls? Or interacting with people after they've made contact with officers? How do you envision this working?

Both of those, as well as more.

We're looking at having these types of mental health crisis specialists work within each barrack. So far, [we’ve] hired four embedded workers over the last couple of months, I think soon we’ll be looking at having eight out of the 10 barracks covered, and then working on the final two.

The funding for this program comes from Department of Public Safety, and we're basically giving some money to the designated agencies [in the area] to hire these folks, and then they would be embedded in the Department of Public Safety of the state police barracks. They'll receive their clinical supervision through their designated agency, while having more on-site and safety supervision from the command staff and the troopers that they're working with in the barracks.

Fox, how do you see this position interacting with the state's work with the ongoing opioid epidemic?

That's a great question. And as I've mentioned earlier, crises come in many, many forms.

I envision working with the state’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, ADAP. I've already been in touch with the state's chief prevention officer, Monica Hutt.

It really comes down to this work [being] about connecting people to resources. And when you think about the “multiple intercept model”— you know, trying to be at the right place at the right time, to connect someone to services and supports, as opposed to criminal charges and an incarceration — [that] could be extremely beneficial and kind of open that door to further treatment.

What are some alternative models in perhaps other states, or other countries, that you think could be used in Vermont successfully?

This is something that I've been very familiar with, and monitoring and watching for quite some time.

There's a program from Eugene, Oregon, that's been up and running since 1989. That program really pairs a mental health crisis specialist with a paramedic, and has a non-law enforcement response. And it's only now, as the national dialogue of “how do we readjust law enforcement's response to folks having a crisis?” [gains traction] that the program in Eugene — which is called Cahoots — is getting a lot more national attention.

"There are times when having law enforcement present, for safety reasons, is needed, or is beneficial. And there are times when there isn't that need, and that is either not needed, or can contribute negatively to a situation."
Mourning Fox, director of Mental Health Programs with the Department of Public Safety

The city of Denver has what they call a support team assisted response, or STAR, where they have a mental health clinician, a paramedic, and a peer support specialist that responds. The interesting thing that I like about the Denver model, which is kind of how I'm thinking similarly [in] Vermont, is that they also have a co-response, or an embedded model, similar to what we're setting up now.

And they have both, [so they] kind of recognize that there are times when having law enforcement present, for safety reasons, is needed, or is beneficial. And there are times when there isn't that need, and that is either not needed, or can contribute negatively to a situation. So having both types of responses, I think, is a is a very interesting and decent model to take a look at.

One of the main things that really is a part of it is also looking at training of the officers, but also training of the dispatchers. And that's the piece that I really want to start to focus on. How do they train their dispatchers so that they know when to dispatch folks with a law enforcement [response], or folks without a law enforcement response?

You know, the Cahoots program [in Oregon] that's been up since 1989 — so we’re talking over 30 years at this point — they have not had a response where any of the members of the Cahoots response team have ever been assaulted or injured. And so that speaks incredibly highly of the dispatchers really being able to tell what type of response is needed, and such [things] like that.

If you or someone you know is having a crisis, help is available.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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