Grant to provide enhanced mental health services in Pitkin County

Law enforcement officers in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley soon will have an expert on hand to help them assist residents with mental-health issues thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the state.

Starting in April, a full-time clinician will be available to ride with officers and deputies to mental health-related calls or meet them there and provide services to people in need, said Andy Atkinson, human services officer at the Aspen Police Department.

“I think it’s incredible,” he said. “We’re talking about people we deal with on a regular basis, over and over again, on the same issues.”

For the past year as part of a nearly $500,000 grant and a Pitkin County-led effort to better provide mental-health services to residents, full-time, on-call mental-health clinicians have been available for law enforcement officers to call when someone is in crisis, said Jessica Beaulieu, mental health program administrator at the Pitkin County Public Health Department.

That effort, which utilized the same amount of money for mental-health services as was being spent previously, better focused mental-health efforts in the county and forced communication between fragmented entities and services. Though just in its first year, the project appears to be succeeding with flying colors, according to a recent Pitkin County commissioners meeting that examined the past year’s impact.

On-call mental-health clinicians have been available to Pitkin County residents and visitors in crisis for the past year as part of that program.

The new co-responder program will add the next step to the overall project, said Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County’s health and human services director.

“This is really trying to de-criminalize mental-health and substance-abuse problems,” she said. “The goal is to keep them out of jail.”

The program ­— called the Pitkin Area Co-responder Team — will be funded by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the state of Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health. Pitkin County was one of eight Colorado counties chosen a year ago for the program, Beaulieu said.

As a result, offices and deputies from the Aspen Police Department, the Snowmass Village Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office will have significant new resources to help chronically struggling populations, Sundeen said.

First, the mental health co-responder will work a regular 40-hour week, probably 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., when most mental health calls come in, and be available to go to those calls, she said. The clinician will be able to assist officers and help stabilize a situation and figure out how best to help a person, Sundeen said.

Next, a full-time case manager will follow-up with the person and manage whatever plan is put in place to help them, she said. For example, that might entail taking the person to doctor appointments or making sure they get their medication, Sundeen said.

Finally, the grant will pay for a half-time peer counselor. That person — who has theoretically been in similar situations mentally as those who need help, and who overcame their issues — can help them navigate bureaucracies and act as an advocate.

Peer counselors are “the trend in mental health” today, Sundeen said.

Atkinson said the crisis response over the past year has been “huge for us.” In fact, response time for those in crisis has gone from 76 minutes in 2016 to 42 minutes in 2018, according to a Mind Springs Health official.

But the new program will focus on those whose constant behavior related to mental-health problems or substance abuse doesn’t rise to the crisis level, but does frequently land them in the hands of law enforcement, Atkinson said.

“It’s for someone who’s not in crisis but obviously in need of services,” he said. “It works toward addressing those needs.”

The person hired for the job is one of the crisis clinicians now working in Pitkin County, Sundeen said. Officials want to fill her job before moving her into the new co-responder job, she said, which is why she won’t likely start until April.

Atkinson said she might work out of Aspen police offices, though that hasn’t been decided yet.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo — a longtime advocate for better mental-health services — said the new co-responder program will be a boon for deputies, who are not trained mental health care professionals.

“I think it is invaluable,” he said. “It will take the stress off deputies.”

The program is more evidence that Pitkin County is making concrete strides to address the mental health of residents, DiSalvo said.

“It’s proof that this community is making progress on this issue,” he said.