FOX VALLEY AREA REGIONAL NEWS: Calumet County, Fond du Lac County, Outagamie County, Winnebago County

Fox Valley’s “Invisible Crisis” placing burden on local police, calls for embedded mental health navigator

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MENASHA-For years now, the Fox Valley has been in the throes of a mental health crisis and Covid-19 only made it worse.

“During 2010 to 2019 there was a 66% increase in suicides and nationally there was only a 30% increase in suicides for the same time period,” explains local suicide prevention coordinator Sarah Bassing-Sutton. “This is like what the heck. This mental health wave is coming behind the pandemic physical health wave and that’s going to last longer and be bigger.”

A Local 5 News investigation shows police are bearing the brunt. In the tri-county region of Winnebago, Calumet and Outagamie Counties, mental health calls for law enforcement have gone up by 17% since March, according to Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection.

A NEW Mental Health Connection representative is now meeting regularly with law enforcement and concerned community leaders to come up with a position that will help streamline services for individuals dealing with a mental health issues and avoid making these kinds of calls a criminal matter.

“There’s a mental health connection in a vast majority of the calls we go on,” Menasha Police Chief Tim Styka tells Local 5 News. “We’ve seen an increase in welfare check calls. Unfortunately suicide attempts and successful suicides.”

The chief says the officers try to make a connection with the person to bring them off the escalation without having to use force.

Too often, negotiation can turn into confrontation.

Just last September a violent confrontation was caught on surveillance camera between a Menasha Police Office and a man who had entered a store with an ax. A clerk and customers had convinced the guy to drop the weapon before the officer arrived. But, as the video shows, in just a moment things changed and got violent.

“There was a weapon behind him and that’s when the officer was struck . He was standing as the person was coming towards the ax. He (the officer) stepped in front of it and that’s how the physical altercation took place.”

In the aftermath, the Chief is asking could somebody have intervened sooner, before the man ever picked up that ax and police were called.

Would this man have been more willing to talk with a counselor over a cop?

There is growing support for an embedded mental health professional who could see firsthand what police are experiencing.

The person could ride along with officers or negotiate or assist virtually. The title might even be co-responder or mental health negotiator.

The important distinction is that this tri-county professional would be independent and not bound by police department policy.

It’s believed this could streamline services for the person in crisis and free up officers.

“A person ends up in crisis we have to put into commitment is in police custody,” explained Chief Styka. “An officer has to sit with the person for up to 12 hours and longer until they’re placed somewhere. That does nothing for a person in crisis. If you’re having a heart attack, would we put you in a waiting room?”

Involvement of the philanthropic community is essential should funding this professional be an issue.

Considering that in 2010 there were just over 40 suicides in the three county area, and now it’s up to 70, those on the frontlines says lives are truly at stake.

“Take for example the person who makes threat on Facebook,” says Chief Styka. “How willing are you to tell me, a police officer, about your problems? Perhaps that could be handled by volunteer or non police officers.”

“The pandemic has flipped everyone’s job on its head and our partners are really looking at taking advantage of this opportunity to respond to mental health crisis,” added Bassing-Sutton. “So that when there is law enforcement dealing with mental health crisis, they will have the ability to connect every individual to treatment and recovery.”

And get police back to catching the bad guy.

Social distancing does not mean that there isn’t help out there.

Support groups are meeting virtually and there’s a local help line: (920) 815-3217

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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