May is Mental Health Awareness Month 

Law enforcement officers today can better recognize that some acts that are being committed are not criminal, but rather a symptom of an individual’s mental illness. Many times, those individuals suffering from mental illness are also struggling with a behavioral disorder or an addiction.

A law enforcement officer’s ability to recognize someone’s behavior caused by a mental illness doesn’t make them an expert. In fact, the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission only requires law enforcement academy recruits to have 16 hours of training related to identifying symptoms of mental illness and how to safely apprehend those individuals. Beyond their academy training, an even smaller number of law enforcement officers receive additional mental health-related training.

Compared to a mental health professional, the limited training given to law enforcement officers makes them the least qualified to handle individuals in a mental health crisis.

From financial shortages to a lack of professional service providers, Florida is among the lowest ranking states in the nation when it comes to access to mental health resources. These shortcomings led the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to establish the Mental Health Unit in 2016.

Initially, the unit utilized the co-response model that partnered one deputy and one social worker, both experts in their respective fields, who would jointly respond and address the individual and his or her needs. After a couple of years, it was clear that a change was needed due to a lack of case management and follow-ups. Part of the solution was a partnership with the Pinellas Integrated Care Alliance to establish the “PIC Team.” If an individual assessed by the mental health professional on the team needed more intensive services, the individual was referred to the PIC Team, which promised better results, but there was still room for improvement.

In September 2020, Sheriff Gualtieri announced a significant expansion of the Mental Health Unit that combined the co-response and case management model, strengthened the partnership with the Pinellas Integrated Care Alliance, and added more teams to the unit.

Regarding the unit’s expansion, Sheriff Gualtieri stated, “We can treat people better and produce better outcomes while keeping them out of the jail and out of the Baker Act system, which is what this initiative seeks to do.”

The goal is to decriminalize the stigmas associated with individuals who are struggling with a mental health issue and get them the help they need.

As the Mental Health Unit continues to work throughout the county and help those with a mental illness, changes will continue to be made, but with the current team and models in place, we are confident that we can help struggling individuals work toward improvement and success.

Posted by Michelle Whiting Saturday, May 1, 2021 2:49:00 PM

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