Pasco Sheriff launches unit to help mentally ill

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is launching a new unit aimed to better serve the needs of people facing significant mental health issues.

The new unit — called the Mental Health and Threat Assessment Team (MHTAT) — will feature six deputies, two caseworkers, a clinical social worker, a sergeant and a lieutenant, who will collaborate with local behavioral health providers to provide tailored, long-term programs for citizens in need.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office is launching a new unit to better serve the needs of local citizens facing significant mental health issues. The Mental Health and Threat Assessment Team (MHTAT) will collaborate with local behavioral health partners to provide long-term care and criminal diversion to the county’s Baker Act repeats. (File)

The team’s primary task is to keep tabs on the county’s Baker Act repeats — through a proactive approach that includes frequent visitations, welfare checks, expedited behavioral health resources and criminal justice diversion programs.

An individual struggling with addiction may be referred to outpatient substance abuse treatment, for instance. Or, someone undergoing financial struggles may be referred to Pasco County Human Services and the county’s homeless coalition.

The unit will have partnerships with BayCare Behavioral Health, Chrysalis Health, Novus Medical Detox Center, HCA Florida Hospitals, AdventHealth and others, “working towards a common goal in our community,” Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said.

The program ultimately will put the agency “ahead of the curve” in crime prevention, the sheriff said.

“We see mental health and substance abuse are the two drivers of criminal justice issues in our county. That’s why we’re creating this unit,” Nocco said.

It’s also about crisis mitigation, said Lt. Toni Roach, who will head up the MHTAT unit.

“Everybody has a baseline, and when they start to dip below that baseline we can provide some intervention strategies, connect them with a case manager or whatever other behavioral health resources are in the community that could help them stabilize,” Roach said.

The unit is expected to be up and running by October. It will cost roughly $1.5 million annually.

About 11 percent of the sheriff’s calls for service in 2018 were mental-health related.

That included roughly 3,400 Baker Act reports and more than 2,100 calls involving suicides or suicide attempts.

Of those reports, 503 individuals had multiple interactions with the agency, including some who’ve been Baker Acted as many as four or five times, Nocco said.

The MHTAT will be concentrating on the population who have had multiple interactions with the county, Nocco said. The unit will help divert those people from having to call 911 and thereby free patrol deputies to respond more quickly to urgent or violent calls.

As an example, the sheriff pointed out that, last year alone, one individual with a history of mental illness called county dispatch 124 times.

But, through a personal visit from the sheriff’s office back in May, those calls have stopped, the sheriff said.  “A lot of times they just need to talk to somebody. They just need somebody to help them out.”

“It’s all about connection,” added Roach. “Interacting with anybody is just that communication piece, being able to sit down with somebody and have a conversation with people, to listen to what’s going on, what are their concerns, what are their barriers.”

And, it’s those types of soft skills that will be required for those selected to the 11-person unit.

“It takes a special person to want to be in this unit,” Nocco said. “You want somebody that has that compassion and care. Somebody who says, ‘I’m not just going to be here for an hour, I might be here two to three hours working with somebody.’”

In recent years, the sheriff’s office has placed an emphasis on training law enforcement personnel to respond better to people who are mentally ill.

The office has an eight-hour foundational course in mental health first aid and a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program held quarterly in Shady Hills. About 50 percent of the agency’s patrol deputies are CIT certified.

Published July 03, 2019

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