Our Opinion: Co-responder program works on many levels

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When issues of mental health cross over into potentially criminal conduct, the outcome is rarely good for anyone involved. The person in crisis, their distraught family members, the responding police officers are caught up in a situation that can escalate and have regrettable consequences even though no one is truly to blame.

There is, however, a route to a better outcome — include a trained, experienced social worker on police calls when appropriate. That is happening in the Berkshires, and it is working.

The Sunday, July 21, centerpiece story by Eagle reporter Amanda Drane, headlined "Taking it to the streets," explains how social worker Richard Collins works with Pittsfield police to defuse potentially dangerous situations. Testifying to its success, what began three years ago as a joint program between the Brien Center and the Pittsfield Police Department has now expanded into a countywide effort.

Too often, incidents involving the mentally ill that lead to confrontations or violence result in incarceration, and upon release of the individual, the cycle repeats. Or the mentally ill are hospitalized and released in a similarly fruitless cycle. The presence of a trained social worker serving as a co-responder, however, can break these cycles.

A striking example in The Eagle story involved the efforts of Laura Gingerich to help her adult son, Billy, a resident of Clarksburg, who battles schizophrenia and appeared to be in a state of decline. He and his mother have gone through the complex process of hospitalization 17 times, often involuntarily. While complimenting the police for their sincere efforts, Ms. Gingerich said that Mr. Collins' ability to get help for her son while avoiding hospitalization has taken pressure off her, as well as a police department and hospital staff burdened with many crises. By allowing The Eagle to use their names, Laura and Billy are helping to shatter the stigma that regrettably attaches itself to mental illness.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn and police officers who have worked with Mr. Collins praise the program for providing them with expertise that enables them to do their jobs better. Family members feel better knowing that a mental health professional is on the scene, and many tense situations are defused in a living room with no thought given to hospitalization or incarceration. When police officers are called away to respond to other incidents, Mr. Collins can stay behind to talk to family members or, in some cases, help fill out forms and answer hospital staff questions so an individual can be sent home with the proper assistance.

The Brien Center-Pittsfield Police Department program began three years ago with funding from the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership and is now fully funded through health insurance. Its success and the presence of a funding mechanism has enabled it to expand north and south, with Mr. Collins working part-time in North Adams and clinician Ivy Goodwin opening a Great Barrington branch in April. Ms. Drane's story includes examples of the co-responder program's success in its new venues.

This is an all-too-rare example of how the public and private sectors and people and groups in different disciplines can work together for the betterment of all parties. If sufficient funding is available. a case could be made for adding more social workers to the program, although finding people with the right mix of experience, expertise and calming personality cannot be easy. The mentally ill, their families, police officers and hospitals all benefit from this worthy program, as does all of Berkshire County.

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