For too long, the criminal justice system has served as the default mental illness and addiction treatment system. That’s according to Josh Thomas, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware chapter. As a result, those struggling with substance use or mental health issues are often kept from getting the treatment they need.
Efforts to reverse that trend have been underway in New Castle County for several years. The county’s police department is now combining a new behavioral health unit into several programs designed to help those with substance use disorder and mental health issues.
“Simply arresting and incarcerating someone with a substance abuse addiction disorder, someone with a mental health issue, is often not the best path,” said New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.
Many police agencies are not moving fast enough to address the change in police tactics, he said.
The new unit will include the department’s Hero Help program, which allows officers to divert someone with a substance use disorder into treatment rather than filing criminal charges. If that person sticks with the treatment program, the officer never files those charges for drug-related crimes.
“Our goal is to save lives, to change lives,” said Police Chief Vaughn Bond. “If we continue doing the things that we’re doing, there’s no question that we will have the impact that we’re looking to have.”
The Hero Help program will combine with the county’s outreach efforts to those with mental health issues. That program pairs a trained clinician with an officer. They form a response team to help people in a mental health crisis, diverting them from the criminal justice system into mental health treatment.
“What this will do is enable us to dramatically multiply the hundreds and hundreds of police cases we’ve had just in the past year to affect thousands of police incidents across this county in a positive way,” Meyer said. “It’s really an important step forward for our county.”
The new behavioral health unit is funded with more than $2 million in federal and state grant money. That money will fund additional staff and a second mental health response team. The money will also pay for a child victim’s advocate to help children affected by mental health issues or addiction in their homes.
“Yes, we announced the fact that we received over $2 million in grant funding. But more importantly, we announce to those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorder, that we care and we are here to help you,” Bond said. “This grant money is not for New Castle County Police. This grant money is for those individuals who are going through trying times.”
New Castle County Police are among many moving to offer treatment in lieu of an arrest. The Council of State Governments Justice Center says that “police departments are increasingly seeking help from the behavioral health system.”
Earlier this year, the center published guidelines for establishing connections with those in the behavioral health field.
“This trend is promising, as historically, law enforcement and the behavioral health system have not always closely collaborated,” the CSG report said.
An initial diversion from jail to treatment isn’t enough, the report said. It urges law enforcement agencies to ensure that mental health services provide help beyond immediate crisis stabilization, including follow-up and longer-term support.
The additional staff in New Castle County is designed to help track that follow-up and provide long-term support.