Behavioral Health Unit seeing increase in calls for mental health help

SPOKANE, Wash. — The joint-agency Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), launched in January, is already seeing marked success, says the Spokane Police Department.

The BHU is a program enacted by the Spokane and Spokane Valley Police Departments, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Frontier Behavioral Health. It pairs law enforcement officers with mental health clinicians when responding to calls.

The Police Department says many people with mental health issues often have coexisting drug or criminal issues.

By bringing mental health professionals to calls, police hope to divert people in crisis from jails and hospitals, and instead connect them to counseling and health services.

“Our goal is not to criminalize any of this. We’re trying to free up the emergency rooms, we’re trying to free up the judicial, jail system and to have people give them the resources they need so they can maintain their independent living,” says Sgt. Jay Kernkamp, with the Spokane Police Department.

The Police Department also notes that this lessens the strain on the criminal justice and hospital systems.

“Our mental health clinicians have continued their efforts to direct individuals to resources that support their continued stabilization in our community” said Frontier COO, Jan Tokumoto.

Police say that when the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, the need for the BHU jumped significantly. They say that in April alone, it responded to 413 calls, with 89-percent of those having an outcome other than jail or the hospital. Police did not use force in any of those cases.

Comparing February and April, the BHU saw a 33-percent increase in calls for a person in crisis. It is up 55 percent in calls for crime-related incidents with a person also going through a mental health crisis.

“By providing services to those in crisis and spending more time on solving the problem, we’re not just putting a Band-Aid on it,” says Kernkamp, “This specialized unit can immediately access the problem, address the need, and link the person in crisis with specific care, significantly reducing the need for potentially unneeded emergency services for behavioral health needs.”

Since the pandemic, Kernkamp says they have seen a change in people’s behavior.

“We notice because we’re taking them out of their routines, they’re not receiving some of the services they normally would,” he said.

An increase in calls for help was expected, Tokumoto said.

“We see an increase because people don’t know when this social isolation is going to lift. People find that it’s a little more difficult than what they may have anticipated,” she added.

If you are struggling, there are a few things you can do to maintain your mental health.

  • Keep in contact with loved ones virtually, so you’re not socially isolated.
  • Limit your intake of news surrounding the pandemic
  • Talk to someone if you do need help.

Those in need of help can call the following line:

  • Regional Crisis Line: 1-877-266-1818
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255