Council Approves Howard Community Outreach Partnership

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Thursday April 05, 2018

In a time of growing need for mental health services nationwide, the City of South Burlington has taken decisive action in an effort to respond in a proactive way. At the April 2 city council meeting, members unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) endorsing the Community Outreach mental health partnership between the six communities of South Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, Essex, Shelburne, and Williston and Howard Center.

This program will allow for four mental health clinicians, known as community outreach specialists, to be embedded within the public service departments of the six communities. Due to the high level of need in South Burlington, the city will have one dedicated FTE on staff to respond to situations. The remaining three will cycle between the five other communities based on need. This program is a separate, but parallel program to the HowardCenter’s successful street outreach team initiative in Burlington. The term of the agreement is 18 months (through June 2019) with an option to extend the program on an annual basis.

Police Chief Trevor Whipple and Fire Chief Doug Brent were on hand to explain the challenges their respective departments have faced in recent years as a result of increasing call volume for mental health related events. Whipple noted that in 2013 and 2014, the police department received 10 calls related to mental health, 16 calls were received in 2015, and the figure has continued to rise exponentially. The department had 16 related calls in January and February, and received 12 related calls in March of this year alone. “We are seeing a level of of challenge and we can and need to do better,” Whipple said. Having clinicians on staff will give layers of response to an event. The clinicians will also be able to conduct regular check-ins with people known to be at risk and provide a level of prevention.

Fire Chief Doug Brent presented similar figures. In the month of February, the fire department brought 137 people to the hospital; 17 of these involved behavioral health issues. Substance abuse issues comprised 6 of the 137 total and 10 involved cardiac issues. Brent explained that a single response requires many resources to be tied up since five staff members respond to a call between the ambulance and firetruck, in addition to a police response of one or two officers. “To have the clinicians will be huge for us,” Brent said.

Whipple also mentioned a host of other benefits he could see occurring including being able to interact with people who are having mental health issues before their health degrades to the point of making a 911 call. In addition, the stress levels of officers could go down, simply by virtue of having the support of a clinician in the car.

Meaghan Emery expressed concerns regarding the costs of the program and the sustainability of it moving forward. To fund its share of the program, South Burlington has redirected $80,000 that had been earmarked for a police department new-hire — a position which is not expected to be filled in the next year. There are currently five openings in the department. Emery also made note of the amounts being paid by each community and the fact that although South Burlington has the second lowest median household income of all six, they will be paying the highest amount. It was acknowledged that South Burlington will also benefit from having a dedicated FTE to address their needs, while the other communities will share the remaining three individuals based on the ebb and flow of need.

Whipple said he was completely comfortable with this funding arrangement and thought it would be a double win for South Burlington by relieving some angst for officers, supporting the community, and showing the wider region that the SBPD would be a desirable department to work in. Whipple did not anticipate, given the current climate around policing nationwide, that those five open officer slots would be filled within a year.

Doug Bugbee, a resident and licensed clinical social worker since 1990 expressed his support for the initiative and shared his reflections on the incredible work of the HowardCenter Street Outreach team. He said that when individuals are undergoing a mental health crisis, they often can’t go get the help they need. Bugbee said that it’s easy to think that a mental health event can’t happen to you or your family, but that’s not the case. According to Bugbee, as of 2016, 18.3 percent of adults nationwide had been diagnosed with a mental illness and 4.2 percent of adults had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Bugbee likened the launch of this program to the city’s investment in capital improvements that may be required over the years; noting that this tool could move the city in the right direction.

Mike Simoneau, a resident and board member of the HowardCenter added that the program is “a need for the city, not a want.” Simoneau said he has seen a number of items come to the fore over the past ten years around mental health that people felt uncertain about, but ended up being beneficial in the long run such as the Chittenden Clinic, mental health clinicians in schools, and Narcan distribution. “We’re all mindful of funds,” Simoneau said, “but this shows South Burlington is caring and loving their neighbor...taking this leadership role will pay great dividends.”

Whipple concluded that programs such as this also work to de-stigmatize mental illness and noted that when people take care of their physical health by going to work out in the morning, no one bats an eye. Addressing mental health issues will hopefully work toward making visiting one’s mental health provider just as commonplace.

The program MOU states a January 2018 start. All clinicians have been hired and are getting to know the departments with which they will work. Regular reports will be made on the progress of the program as it evolves and if adjustments need to be made to staffing or cost adjustments based on community need or call volume, that will occur as well.


SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent