Community Outreach Team Addresses Local Mental Health Crisis

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Thursday December 21, 2017

The formation of a new Community Outreach Team was recently announced by the City of South Burlington. The initiative, which will address the growing mental health crisis locally and in nearby towns, is part of a larger community collaborative which includes South Burlington, Essex, Colchester, Shelburne, Williston, and Winooski. Starting in January, the team’s goal is to make additional resources available to address social service needs and problem behaviors that are often based in mental health instability or substance abuse. The Howard Center will employ, manage, and fund the Community Outreach Team, while a steering committee comprised of Howard Center staff, representatives of funding organizations, city and town managers, and police chiefs will monitor and evaluate progress on the model.

The concept of the Community Outreach Team took shape this summer, when city managers, police and fire/ambulance chiefs, along with representatives from the University of Vermont Medical Center and the Howard Center began to meet in a Community Collaborative to identify shortcomings in regional mental health response and delivery programs, and to develop appropriate responses. The strong message from the first responder leadership was that the number of calls from residents experiencing mental health crises, including suicide, was on the rise and that existing programs were falling short of meeting demand. Also discussed was the increase in the number of residents making repetitive and ongoing calls to first responders, which created a significant demand on resources.

One of the programs recognized by the Community Collaborative was a variation of the Street Outreach Program that the Howard Center has deployed and managed in Burlington. Working with the Burlington Police Department, merchants, service providers, and other concerned community members, the Street Outreach Program provides services including immediate, community-based triage and outreach intervention. Much of this work is done in the downtown Burlington/Church Street area of the community, with a focus on mental health, substance abuse, medical instability, financial instability, and homelessness.

With a similar concept to the Street Outreach Program in mind, the Community Collaborative’s representatives of South Burlington, Essex, Colchester, Shelburne, Williston, and Winooski began to develop a similar program, one more reflective of the realities of their communities. The new program is called Community Outreach to distinguish it from the Burlington program.

The goal of the new team of four full-time Community Outreach Specialists will be to provide a quick response in advance of, in partnership with, or after involvement with law enforcement. Thus, police will be able to use resources more effectively to address criminal behaviors and to enhance the general wellbeing of the community. The specialists will provide effective needs assessment and develop strategies that will connect the resident experiencing mental health crisis with resources, reducing the need for police or ambulance team involvement. According to the city, the total cost per full-time specialist is approximately $81,000, and will be funded by the Howard Center.

Initially, specialists will work Monday through Friday during the daytime to allow for training and building relationships with other community providers, partners, and merchants, which are generally open during business hours. It will also allow the team to maximize referrals and connection with community resources. Staffing and a more permanent scheduling model will develop over time based on the needs of the six communities.

City Manager Kevin Dorn, in reaction to the rising need in the community, was a driving force in the development of the program. “This is a great example of communities coming together in a shared regional approach to a common problem. I appreciate the work of the city/town managers, police and fire chiefs, and the support of the councils and select boards to bring forth this initiative,” he said.

It is anticipated that referrals to the team will come from local law enforcement, schools, business owners, community partners, families and friends, and First Call for Chittenden County or other Howard Center programs. The team will be able to identify heavy service users and “service resistant” individuals, and be able to intervene with them to reduce the strain of emergency resources for non-emergencies.