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Officials weigh in on mental health service gaps

Eastern New Mexico News - 9/3/2023

Sep. 2—A false report of an active shooter in Clovis on Wednesday turned out to be a mental health crisis from the reporting party.

Officers were dispatched to K-Bob's Steakhouse about 9:30 a.m. after a caller claimed someone was shooting people inside. On arrival, police found only employees getting ready to open.

Officers located the person who made the call and learned they were experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a news release from police. The incident was turned over to a Mobile Crisis Response Team. There were no threats or injuries of any kind.

First-responders say mental health issues are often overlooked, and there is a lack of proper assistance in dealing with mental health issues.

"It's what they have to work with," said Kris Paulus, the Medication Assisted Treatment program manager for Roosevelt County. Paulus said it can be difficult for first responders to find a place to go when they need help.

"It's a broken system that needs to be revamped to expand the network of services and support available resources by local providers and to develop resources to fill the gaps," she said.

Paulus has experience providing mental health services within the detention center. She believes if a person is unable to meet their basic needs, they will not be able to move forward in dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

A shortage of behavioral health resources also affect the mental health of first responders themselves, according to Portales Fire Chief T.J. Cathey.

"Mental health struggles are far too common for all first responders," Cathey said.

Cathey was promoted to chief in 2019, following the retirement of Portales Fire Chief Gary Nuckols. "He was very proactive in taking many positive steps to assist our personnel with mental health," Cathey said of Nuckols.

In 2019, Cathey said, the department did an anonymous self-assessment that revealed over 95% of their personnel at that time were experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then, that number has decreased to 70.5%. Cathey gave credit to Nuckols, the city of Portales, and current officers for that success.

However, that number is still more than double the national average for first responders and more than triple the national average for the general public, Cathey said, citing a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report published in 2018.

PTSD is only one of many mental health issues emergency responders deal with on a daily basis. Paulus said depression, anxiety, substance abuse, complex trauma, and suicidal thoughts are all common struggles within the field.

"They tend to run on adrenaline for so long that burnout is a real thing and a lot of times people in helping professions are not the best at self-care," Paulus said.

Many responders have expressed the need for a local facility where people in mental health crises can be taken for stabilization and aftercare, according to Paulus.

"The current system has them being taken to the hospital or detention," she said.

Hospitals will have contracted with mental health workers who will conduct an assessment for risk of self to harm or others. Paulus said if there is none, the person will be free to leave "even if they are actively psychotic."

In detention, the person is held until they are seen by a judge, who then can either continue the hold, set a bond, or release the person on their own recognizance, according to Paulus.

Those held in detention are often seen by contract mental health staff to determine a need for psychiatric services to include medication and/or counseling.

"Many times, these persons are stabilized within the facility, however the lack of re-entry supports, such as transitional housing and case management, result in the cycle starting over again," Paulus said.

Cathey believes the next step to combat mental health in emergency personnel, at least within Portales Fire Department, is to increase shift staffing.

"Increasing staffing will increase our response capability, which will improve the safety of our community and decrease response times," Cathey said.

He also believes that increasing staffing will decrease the number of negative stimuli their personnel are exposed to, minimizing the risk of PTSD and its symptoms.

Cathey said any time there is a call for service that has a high risk of causing mental health issues, the standard practice is for the crew on the call and/or the shift to perform a debriefing immediately following the incident. Personnel will then check in on each other in the days to come.

"Mental health, for many, was a hush-hush topic with the approach to just toughen up," Cathey said.

"Thankfully, the culture is improving nationwide around the stigma of mental health and is growing into a talked about and addressed issue."

The Eastern New Mexico Behavioral Health Leadership Council is gearing up for an Advanced Crisis Intervention Training, which will focus on "going beyond basic verbal de-escalation skills," according to a council news release.

The training will include law enforcement, probation/parole and detention professionals. It's a five-day, 40-hour class that will be highly interactive, and will teach people how to respond or behave in a crisis.

One of the goals of this course is to teach attendees how to be proactive instead of reactive, the release stated.

The training is scheduled for Sept. 4-8. It will begin at 8 a.m. each day, and attendance on all five days is a requirement. The class size will be limited to 30 attendees. For more information, contact the Roosevelt County Administrative Offices at 575-356-5307.


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